FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Crass Slipper Fits

by DAVE ZIRIN

“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.

 

DAVE ZIRIN is the author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
May 26, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Anthony DiMaggio
Swamp Politics, Trump Style: “Russiagate” Diverts From the Real White House Scandals
Paul Street
It’s Not Gonna Be Okay: the Nauseating Nothingness of Neoliberal Capitalist and Professional Class Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
The ICEmen Cometh
Ron Jacobs
The Deep State is the State
Pete Dolack
Why Pence Might be Even Worse Than Trump
Patrick Cockburn
We Know What Inspired the Manchester Attack, We Just Won’t Admit It
Thomas Powell
The Dirty Secret of the Korean War
Mark Ashwill
The Fat Lady Finally Sings: Bob Kerrey Quietly Resigns from Fulbright University Vietnam Leadership Position
John Davis
Beyond Hope
Uri Avnery
The Visitation: Trump in Israel
Ralph Nader
The Left/Right Challenge to the Failed “War on Drugs”
Traci Yoder
Free Speech on Campus: a Critical Analysis
Dave Lindorff
Beware the Supporter Scorned: Upstate New York Trump Voters Hit Hard in President’s Proposed 2018 Budget
Daniel Read
“Sickening Cowardice”: Now More Than Ever, Britain’s Theresa May Must be Held to Account on the Plight of Yemen’s Children
Ana Portnoy
Before the Gates: Puerto Rico’s First Bankruptcy Trial
M. Reza Behnam
Rethinking Iran’s Terrorism Designation
Brian Cloughley
Ukraine and the NATO Military Alliance
Josh Hoxie
Pain as a Policy Choice
David Macaray
Stephen Hawking Needs to Keep His Mouth Shut
Ramzy Baroud
Fear as an Obstacle to Peace: Why Are Israelis So Afraid?
Kathleen Wallace
The Bilious Incongruity of Trump’s Toilet
Seth Sandronsky
Temping Now
Alan Barber – Dean Baker
Blue Collar Blues: Manufacturing Falls in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania in April
Jill Richardson
Saving America’s Great Places
Richard Lawless
Are Credit Rating Agencies America’s Secret Fifth Column?
Louis Proyect
Venezuela Reconsidered
Murray Dobbin
The NDP’s Singh and Ashton: Flash Versus Vision
Ron Leighton
Endarkenment: Postmodernism, Identity Politics, and the Attack on Free Speech
Anthony Papa
Drug War Victim: Oklahoma’s Larry Yarbrough to be Freed after 23 Years in Prison
Rev. John Dear
A Call to Mobilize the Nation Over the Next 18 Months
Yves Engler
Why Anti-Zionism and Anti-Jewish Prejudice Have to Do With Each Other
Ish Mishra
Political Underworld and Adventure Journalism
Binoy Kampmark
Roger Moore in Bondage
Rob Seimetz
Measuring Manhoods
Edward Curtin
Sorry, You’re Not Invited
Vern Loomis
Winning the Lottery is a State of Mind
Charles R. Larson
Review: Mary V. Dearborn’s “Ernest Hemingway”
David Yearsley
The Ethos of Mayfest
May 25, 2017
Jennifer Matsui
The Rise of the Alt-Center
Michael Hudson
Another Housing Bubble?
Robert Fisk
Trump Meets the New Leader of the Secular World, Pope Francis
John Laforge
Draft Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Unveiled
Benjamin Dangl
Trump’s Budget Expands War on the Backs of America’s Poor
Alice Donovan
US-Led Air Strikes Killed Record Number of Civilians in Syria
Andrew Moss
The Meaning of Trump’s Wall
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail