Joe and Max (2002)
Director Steve James’ debut feature was the acclaimed documentary Hoop Dreams. Lauded by film critic Roger Ebert as one of the best films ever made about American life, James followed it with another three movies based on true stories about sporting figures. However these were narrative in nature. Prefontaine was about an Olympic long-distance runner; Passing Glory depicted the drama behind an integrated basketball game in the 1960’s; and then there’s this biopic of Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. Paradoxically, while James was able to stir the emotions with Hoop Dreams, in his narrative films the drama remains decidedly in check.
In preparation for a title-shot bout with Jim (Cinderella Man) Braddock, Joe Louis agrees to what he considers to be little more than a tune-up fight against German ex-champion Max Schmeling. Keen to avoid the missteps of former Black Heavyweight Jack Johnson, Louis actively promotes the ideal of respectability as reporters pepper him with racist questions. Schmeling meanwhile is hauled before Chief of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, who is fearful what a defeat by an African-American may do to the Nazi notion of Aryan superiority. In a major upset, Schmeling defeats the ‘Brown Bomber’ resulting in a rematch seen as a battle between good and evil held on the cusp of WWII. Never mind that Louis encountered little good and Schmeling was not a Nazi.
Though Joe and Max dutifully documents these anachronisms, it fails to engage the viewer with the injustices meted out to the boxers. In this German-US coproduction, it is Max’s story that provides the most interest, due in part to the performance from Til Schweiger. Yet the dialogue as stilted as the recreations of the fights, which are continually undermined by cutaways to amateurish crowd reactions. Where this film does set itself apart from the earlier, superior Ring of Passion is its continuation of the story after the bouts, revealing the boxer’s unlikely friendship in later years.
After Joe and Max Steve James returned to making documentaries. Among them was Life Itself, based on Roger Eberts’ autobiography.
as Max Schmeling
as Joe Louis
as Anny Ondra
as Jack Dempsey
Not so much an inaccuracy but a peculiar omission. End credits reveal that Joe and Max became friends after the war and remained so until Joe’s death. However, it neglects to mention that Max helped pay for his former combatant’s funeral.