The Crass Slipper Fits


"When our country was on its knees, he brought America to his feet."

So proclaims the tagline for Ron Howard’s Depression Era boxing film Cinderella Man starring Russell Crowe. Cinderella Man, the story of 1930’s heavyweight champion James J. Braddock, has been compared to the 2003 film Seabiscuit, both stories of plucky sports underdogs that triumphed during the Great Depression. The comparison is apt, and not just because Crowe mopes around Cinderella Man with the same blank, hangdog expression as that damn horse. Like the insipid Seabiscuit, this entire big budget biopic comes off as yet another Hollywood effort to sweeten the story of the 1930s. And like Seabiscuit, Cinderella Man portrays the Depression as a time, in the words of film reviewer Jamie Bernard, "that was really good for teaching values." Beyond that, all one would learn from Cinderella Man is that the Great Depression was really depressing.

In reality, the 1930s was an era of not only poverty but also mass resistance, as strikes swept the south and shut down the cities of San Francisco, Toledo, and Minneapolis. It was a time when many of the reforms on the chopping block today, like Social Security, were won through the struggles of the labor movement. It was a time when revolution in the United States was on the table as hundreds of thousands of people attempted to offer an alternative to the barbarisms of capitalism. As Depression era sports writer Lester Rodney put it, "In the 1930s if you weren’t some kind of radical, Communist, socialist, or Trotskyist, you were considered brain-dead, and you probably were!" Just about everyone in Cinderella Man wears their brain-deadness like a medal of honor, passively enduring poverty as if they had just received red, white, and blue lobotomies.

The only hint of the other side of the Depression in Cinderella Man is Braddock’s dockworker buddy Mike Wilson (played by Patty Consodine.) Mike believes in the power of protest, but he’s also clearly doomed from the opening frame, portrayed as a drunk whose wife snaps at him, "You can save the world, but not your family!" Renee Zellweger, as Crowe’s spouse Mae mirrors Mike’s wife, as the typically sexist sports-movie female character, fretting with every fight and forced to say lines like, "You are the champion of my heart, James J. Braddock!"

The film is also shamefully simplistic and even slanderous in its portrayal of the heavyweight champion at the time Max Baer. Baer was a hulking, brutal fighter, who had two opponents die in the ring. But Cinderella Man reduces Baer to a one-dimensional stock villain, a perfect counterpart for Crowe’s paper-thin stock hero. As played by Craig Bierko, Baer struts around with a psychotic gleam in his eye, as if he would enjoy nothing more than killing Braddock and spitting on his grave. In one scene, he looks at Mae and says, "Nice! Too bad she’ll be a widow."

In reality, Baer was devastated and nearly destroyed by the ring deaths that occurred at his hands, as any non-sociopath would be. Also Baer was a complex figure who fought against Nazi favorite Max Schmeling with a Star of David embroidered on his trunks. To see Howard’s movie, one would think that the only symbol Baer favored was a pentagram.

But the real tragedy of the film is its treatment of Braddock. Crowe does what he can with a terrible script, but it says everything about the film that the final credits roll before the actual ending of Braddock’s fight career, a 1937 8th round knockout at the hands of Joe Louis. Louis, the first African-American heavyweight champ since Jack Johnson,was a symbol of hope for both African-Americans and the left wing of the radicalizing working class. To have portrayed his fight with Braddock would have meant dealing with complex issues of how boxing, in a violent society, has acted as a deeply symbolic morality play about the ability of people – especially people of color – to succeed and stand triumphant. It would have meant trying to understand why some people would have rooted for Braddock against Baer, but then bitterly opposed him against Louis. But the filmmakers could care less about these complicated dimensions of either the period or the sport. Their job in Cinderella Man is to take complex characters and turn them into stick figures, easily consumed and easily forgotten. At that task, they have succeeded admirably.

[For people really interested in the James J. Braddock story, read the just released Jeremy Schaap book also called ‘Cinderella Man‘ and – blessedly – not connected to the film.]

DAVE ZIRIN’s new book "What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States" will be in stores in June 2005. Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing edgeofsports-subscribe@zirin.com. Contact him at whatsmynamefool2005@yahoo.com.

November 26, 2015
Ashley Nicole McCray – Lawrence Ware
Decolonizing the History of Thanksgiving
Joseph Grosso
The Enduring Tragedy: Guatemala’s Bloody Farce
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Imperial Myths: the Enduring Lie of the US’s Origin
Ralph Nader
The Joys of Solitude: a Thanksgiving!

Joseph G. Ramsey
Something to be Thankful For: Struggles, Seeds…and Surprises
Dan Glazebrook
Turkey Shoot: the Rage of the Impotent in Syria
Andrew Stewart
The Odious President Wilson
Colin Todhunter
Corporate Parasites And Economic Plunder: We Need A Genuine Green Revolution
Rajesh Makwana
Ten Billion Reasons to Demand System Change
Joyce Nelson
Turkey Moved the Border!
Richard Baum
Hillary Clinton’s Meager Proposal to Help Holders of Student Debt
Sam Husseini
A Thanksgiving Day Prayer
November 25, 2015
Jeff Taylor
Bob Dylan and Christian Zionism
Dana E. Abizaid
Provoking Russia
Oliver Tickell
Syria’s Cauldron of Fire: a Downed Russian Jet and the Battle of Two Pipelines
Patrick Cockburn
Trigger Happy: Will Turkey’s Downing of Russian Jet Backfire on NATO?
Robert Fisk
The Soothsayers of Eternal War
Russell Mokhiber
The Coming Boycott of Nike
Ted Rall
Like Father Like Son: George W. Bush Was Bad, His Father May Have Been Worse
Matt Peppe
Bad Policy, Bad Ethics: U.S. Military Bases Abroad
Martha Rosenberg
Pfizer Too Big (and Slippery) to Fail
Yorgos Mitralias
Bernie Sanders, Mr. Voutsis and the Truth Commission on Greek Public Debt
Jorge Vilches
Too Big for Fed: Have Central Banks Lost Control?
Sam Husseini
Why Trump is Wrong About Waterboarding — It’s Probably Not What You Think
Binoy Kampmark
The Perils of Certainty: Obama and the Assad Regime
Roger Annis
State of Emergency in Crimea
Soud Sharabani
ISIS in Lebanon: An Interview with Andre Vltchek
Thomas Knapp
NATO: This Deal is a Turkey
November 24, 2015
Dave Lindorff
An Invisible US Hand Leading to War? Turkey’s Downing of a Russian Jet was an Act of Madness
Mike Whitney
Turkey Downs Russian Fighter to Draw NATO and US Deeper into Syrian Quagmire
Walter Clemens
Who Created This Monster?
Patrick Graham
Bombing ISIS Will Not Work
Lida Maxwell
Who Gets to Demand Safety?
Eric Draitser
Refugees as Weapons in a Propaganda War
David Rosen
Trump’s Enemies List: a Trial Balloon for More Repression?
Eric Mann
Playing Politics While the Planet Sizzles
Chris Gilbert
“Why Socialism?” Revisited: Reflections Inspired by Einstein’s Article
Charles Davis
NSA Spies on Venezuela’s Oil Company
Barry Lando
Shocked by Trump? Churchill Wanted to “Collar Them All”
Michael Barker
Democracy vs. Political Policing
Cal Winslow
When Workers Fight: the National Union of Healthcare Workers Wins Battle with Kaiser
Norman Pollack
Where Does It End?: Left Political Correctness
David Macaray
Companies Continue to Profit by Playing Dumb
Binoy Kampmark
Animals in Conflict: Diesel, Dobrynya and Sentimental Security
Dave Welsh
Defiant Haiti: “We Won’t Let You Steal These Elections!”