Joe Louis: America's Hero... Betrayed is part of HBO usually excellent documentary series. It premiered on February 23rd, 2008 following the broadcast of the heavyweight title fight between Vladimir Klitschko and Sultan Ibragimov. Briefly, for those that don't know, Louis was boxing's first black champion since the controversial Jack Johnson. A quiet, stoic figure, he was an athlete that people rallied behind during World War 2. This was both in the ring defending against German and Hitler favorite Max Schmeling and outside when he served in the Army and made steps against segregation. Interviewees include the regular round of biographers, sportstwirters, Louis' son, friends, and some celebrities/activists/fans like Maya Angelou, Bill Cosby, Jerry Lewis, Dick Gregory, and Jimmy Carter.
The first half focuses on Louis standing as a black athlete, inspiration, and uniting force for minorities and the marginalized during troubled, segregated times and the second World War. To be fair, it isn't all sunny and there are some "warts and all" issues covered like Louis womanizing. This is respectably presented yet standard stuff covered in most Louis bio profiles. The latter half's "betrayed" issues are what defines this from other Louis bio profiles. Basically, the film goes into Louis post-war financial troubles, that he lost a lot of money during his patriotic stint in the army and was not allowed to write off his (he thought) charitable ticket buying for servicemen to see his exhibitions, leaving him with a massive tax debt that forced him to fight long after he should have retired, take embarrassing jobs, and be hounded by the IRS for nearly two decades.
Now, I actually find the "betrayed" viewpoint a tad contentious (here come the emails). There is no doubt Louis did a lot for race relations during his life. At first it was merely incidental to being a black athlete who rose to prominence and later by making some more conscientious steps. The doc does note that Louis made more money than a black man, much less any athlete, could dream of and he spent it freely, had managers that ripped him off, and lawyers that gave him bad advice. True of most boxers then and now. The doc slips in these human foibles while also implying the government as a big, bad meanie that went after him for back taxes and inflated the interest to such a degree it was a nearly impossible for him to get out debt.
What Louis endured at the hands of the tax man was harsh, sure, but not totally unfair and its not as if your average Joe doesn't often go though the same thing. If the doc had some substance to back up the IRS treatment as unjust, near-illegal scapegoating, or uncommon, I'd think there was something suspicious going on and feel more Louis. After mentioning how Louis spent more than he had, made charitable donations he technically couldn't write off, and borrowed money during his stint in the Army, the doc backhandedly spits forth the following narrated quote, "Once the war ended, Louis had outlived his usefulness to the country. In an act of cruel irony, the very government that had made him a symbol of American democracy, now hounded him for tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes."
Despite the villainous packaging, the only defense against the IRS treatment the doc musters is that Joe was such a good guy and an innocent money doling victim. Really? That's it? Because he was uneducated and didn't know how to handle finances, was surrounded by incompetents, and would become a champion to the underprivileged he deserved to be treated differently, with exception, with leeway? He was eventually granted some slack, maybe a tad too late (long after he was left a financial wreck and a joke to the public), but as I said, the doc seemed intent to make the government a boogeyman that viciously "betrayed" him and that simply doesn't add up. Not saying the government and the IRS doesn't stink, but I just wasn't sold and there was no evidence that they had some evil agenda or that Louis was some preyed upon saint.
I think this doc illustrates something that is too common when reflecting about our heroes. When it comes to hindsight of a legend, in the same way that they were more than an ordinary man/woman when it came to their applauded aspects, those human flaws become less excusable and people start to reach beyond and grasp for ancillary reasons to account for their shortcomings. We put them on such a pedestal, we cannot believe they'd fall off for lack of balance. Surely someone had to push them? In this case, it makes for a deeper story to have some evil cabal looming behind Louis' post-war disgraces. The truth seems to be far more grounded with no monster in the dark emptying Louis' checkbook.
On a final note, bear in mind the skewed "betrayed" business really only makes up for, maybe, 15% of the doc's running time. Although fairly marginal, it was still the docs selling point in both title and the HBO commercial promos/summaries. Its really the only slightly sour aspect of this piece and I do not want my harping on it to detract from the rest of the presentation. Be you boxing fan or not, Joe Louis story is more than worth 75 mins of your time.
The DVD: HBO
Picture: The doc is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen. Very nice presentation with no technical transfer flaws. You will get pretty much what one expects, period footage and stills spanning from the 20's to the 70's, and crisper, impeccably lit, modern interview footage.
Sound: The doc features Dolby 2.0 Stereo English and Spanish language tracks with Close-Captioning for the hearing impaired. Nice track. Good use of scoring that isn't too invasive. Stock material has the standard age flaws. The dulcet tones of HBO's go-to narrator Liev Schreiber are warm and inviting giving the work a professional, classy feel.
Conclusion: While certainly sad and what sets this doc apart from the pack, I totally didn't buy the weepy elements of Joe Louis being unjustifiably tax-tortured by the government. The facts that are covered about Louis are great and one can appreciate them despite how some of them are skewed in certain areas to sell the doc makers viewpoint.
HBO puts together a great package with their doc series and it is a shame they don't actually do the same with their too often completely barebones DVD releases like this one. There is no extra incentive to own this disc. You can catch it in this form airing on HBO's schedule or even at your own convenience when it is ONDemand (something I did, both ways, before reviewing this disc). Therefore, I gotta' go with a rental.