- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 3, 2002

If Mike Tyson has convinced you everybody in boxing is basically rotten, take a look at "Joe and Max," a TV docudrama premiering Saturday night on the Starz! pay channel. It might change your mind a bit.
The title refers, of course, to longtime heavyweight champion Joe Louis and German challenger Max Schmeling, who fought cataclysmic bouts in 1936 and 1938. There's a good chunk of history both the fistic and world variety in this well-made film. If younger viewers aren't fascinated, they ought to be.
When I was a child, in the '50s, the Louis-Schmeling fights were the stuff of sporting legend, the second matched for high drama only by Bobby Thomson's ninth-inning home run that enabled the New York Giants to defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the final game of the 1951 National League pennant playoff.
The basics of both life and movie: In, 1936, the 22-year-old Louis was considered invincible after kayoing a whole boatload of pugs. A hero to millions of black Americans, he obviously was destined to become the first black heavyweight champion since Jack Johnson two decades earlier. Then, shockingly, he was knocked out in 1936 by Schmeling, a former champ who was considered over the hill but who had noticed that Louis had a habit of dropping his left hand when he threw a right, leaving him open to Schmeling's own right. Nazi Germany rejoiced, Harlem mourned, and the stage was set for their second meeting.
The following year, Louis knocked out journeyman champ Jim Braddock to win the title, while Schmeling was frozen out because of his ancestry. But Louis, widely known in that less enlightened era as the "Brown Bomber," told reporters, "I won't be a real champion until I beat Max Schmeling."
They met June 22, 1938, at Yankee Stadium, and the carnage was immediate. Louis required only 2:04 of the first round to win, beating Schmeling so savagely that the German had to be hospitalized. In the early years of TV, a show called "Greatest Fights of the Century" followed the Friday night bouts from Madison Square Garden on NBC, and year after year Louis was shown battering Schmeling during the introduction. Poor Max … and yet there was great irony and pathos in the aftermath.
For one thing, the two fighters had great respect for each other. Says Schmeling, who is portrayed by Til Schweiger in the film: "I'm not a Nazi I'm just a fighter." And Louis is played accurately by Leonard Roberts as a decent, rather simple man who didn't really enjoy knocking people senseless. One jarring note: The movie covers the years from 1935 to 1952, but neither protagonist ages much, although the baby-faced Roberts acquires a mustache that I guess is supposed to make him look older.
The point is clearly made that both were victims of their environment, Schmeling's Nazi Germany and Louis' Jim Crow America. But while Louis' later years were extremely sad heavily in hock because of unpaid back income taxes, he is reduced to becoming a pro wrestling referee and later a "greeter" in a Las Vegas casino before his death in 1981 Schmeling thrives as a German-based executive for Coca-Cola. Now 96, he retired just a year ago.
In one of the film's more touching moments, Louis visits Schmeling in the hospital after knocking him out a scene that perhaps sprang from the imagination of screenwriter Jason Horwitch but is nonetheless touching. They agree to remain friends despite the coming horror of World War II, and Louis says, "First chance either one of us gets, we'll come find the other." Replies Schmeling: "You have a deal."
Schmeling's chance comes in 1952, when he visits Louis in a Chicago jazz club. The two exchange warm greetings and later warm farewells in a train station. Oddly, however, the film ignores one of the most poignant factors of their relationship: The prosperous Schmeling helped support Louis financially for the rest of Joe's life.
Despite the kind of departures from reality that turn up in all biopics for example, the referee doesn't make Louis go to a neutral corner each time he floors Schmeling the film is significant enough that it deserves, and eventually should receive, wider distribution. There haven't been a lot of great movies about boxing or sports, but this one comes reasonably close thanks to director Steve James ("Hoop Dreams") and his large, competent cast.

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