by Laura Tucker
“When he passed on, he left a world far better than the one he had entered.”
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HBO’s new documentary showcasing one of the boxing world’s greatest, Joe Louis shows so much more of his story than we know—that is, those of us that are young enough to have not been around when he was in his heyday. Throughout this documentary, we not only get to see what made him a legend; we also get to see the man behind the legend.
The son of sharecroppers, his full name was Joseph Louis Barrow, and he got into boxing by taking the quarter his grandmother gave him for violin lessons and using it to rent a locker at the gym. Learning to box, he became quite good, and began taking on fights, yet because he was a black man, he couldn’t get any of the major fights.
Interviews are provided throughout the documentary from Louis’ family and friends, including Joe Louis Barrow, Jr., several biographers, Bill Cosby, Maya Angelou, Jerry Lewis, Motown founder Barry Gordy, even President Jimmy Carter shares his memories of 40 black people listening to a big fight in his home because his family had a radio, and his father allowed them in. Many of these people discuss the tough road Louis had to the top and speak of what a hero he was to the black community.
Joe Louis was battling a few things other than his opponents in the ring. He was trying to break into the world of boxing as a black man, and there was already a black fighter setting trends. Jack Johnson was shocking many, marrying white women, flaunting his money, gloating every time he won, and he had gold teeth before anyone really knew what a grille was. Because of this, it made it hard for Louis to break through as another black fighter. To try and change white people’s ideas, he was not allowed to be photographed with white women, or do anything else that could be associated with Jack Johnson. Eventually this worked, and he got his break.
Once Louis gained the heavyweight title, he became a hero to everyone, but especially black America. They saw hope in him. If this guy from a sharecropper family could make it big, there was hope for them all. He was allowed into white America, so maybe they would someday be welcomed, as well. He put it all on hold, though, to help his country.
When the United States went to war, Louis wanted to do his part to help, and boxed while in the war, donating the purse to relief funds, and only accepting the standard soldier’s pay. He was in the service for four years, and when he came out, it was all gone. His confidantes were in jail or dead, and he found he had been given bad advice, now owing a large chunk of money to the I.R.S. Despite dedicating his time and donating all that money while in the service, they were still after him for back taxes. On top of it all, his wife was leaving him and taking their children with her.
Joe Jr. is bitter about his father’s time as the heavyweight champ. He rarely got time alone with his father, and when they’d go out together, everyone else wanted a piece of him. For his son, it didn’t matter that he was a hero to so many. It didn’t matter that he opened doors for other black athletes. It also didn’t matter to the I.R.S., who continued to hound him for that money. Even after he retired from boxing, he was paraded out in entertainment venues just, even trying wrestling, all to earn quick cash to pay off the tax debt.
Joe Louis paved the way for so many. There wouldn’t have been an opening for Muhammad Ali had Joe Louis not set the course many years before. Through this documentary, we see that he didn’t just pave the way for black boxers and other black athletes, but for black America as whole. He gave everyone hope.
Perhaps it’s something that white America would never understand, to see the barriers Joe Louis pushed through, and certainly not the generations that never had the pleasure of seeing him fight. I was born in 1964, and to me, all there was was Muhammad Ali. There wasn’t any question in my mind on whether he should be allowed to fight white people. By my generation, it was expected.
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