FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

 

More articles by:

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.

November 19, 2018
David Rosen
Amazon Deal: New York Taxpayers Fund World Biggest Sex-Toy Retailer
Sheldon Richman
Art of the Smear: the Israel Lobby Busted
Chad Hanson
Why Trump is Wrong About the California Wildfires
Dean Baker
Will Progressives Ever Think About How We Structure Markets, Instead of Accepting them as Given?
Robert Fisk
We Remember the Great War, While Palestinians Live It
Dave Lindorff
Pelosi’s Deceptive Plan: Blocking any Tax Rise Could Rule Out Medicare-for-All and Bolstering Social Security
Rick Baum
What Can We Expect From the Democrat “Alternative” in California?
Thomas Scott Tucker
Trump, World War I and the Lessons of Poetry
John W. Whitehead
Red Flag Gun Laws
Newton Finn
On Earth, as in Heaven: the Utopianism of Edward Bellamy
Robert Fantina
Shithole Countries: Made in the USA
René Voss
Have Your Say about Ranching in Our Point Reyes National Seashore
Weekend Edition
November 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jonah Raskin
A California Jew in a Time of Anti-Semitism
Andrew Levine
Whither the Melting Pot?
Joshua Frank
Climate Change and Wildfires: The New Western Travesty
Nick Pemberton
The Revolution’s Here, Please Excuse Me While I Laugh
T.J. Coles
Israel Cannot Use Violent Self-Defense While Occupying Gaza
Rob Urie
Nuclear Weapons are a Nightmare Made in America
Paul Street
Barack von Obamenburg, Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fire is Sweeping Our Very Streets Today
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s New President, Other European Fools and the Abyss 
Pete Dolack
“Winners” in Amazon Sweepstakes Sure to be the Losers
Richard Eskow
Amazon, Go Home! Billions for Working People, But Not One Cent For Tribute
Ramzy Baroud
In Breach of Human Rights, Netanyahu Supports the Death Penalty against Palestinians
Brian Terrell
Ending the War in Yemen- Congressional Resolution is Not Enough!
John Laforge
Woolsey Fire Burns Toxic Santa Susana Reactor Site
Ralph Nader
The War Over Words: Republicans Easily Defeat the Democrats
M. G. Piety
Reading Plato in the Time of the Oligarchs
Rafael Correa
Ecuador’s Soft Coup and Political Persecution
Brian Cloughley
Aid Projects Can Work, But Not “Head-Smacking Stupid Ones”
David Swanson
A Tale of Two Marines
Robert Fantina
Democrats and the Mid-Term Elections
Joseph Flatley
The Fascist Creep: How Conspiracy Theories and an Unhinged President Created an Anti-Semitic Terrorist
Joseph Natoli
Twitter: Fast Track to the Id
William Hawes
Baselines for Activism: Brecht’s Stance, the New Science, and Planting Seeds
Bob Wing
Toward Racial Justice and a Third Reconstruction
Ron Jacobs
Hunter S. Thompson: Chronicling the Republic’s Fall
Oscar Gonzalez
Stan Lee and a Barrio Kid
Jack Rasmus
Election 2018 and the Unraveling of America
Sam Pizzigati
The Democrats Won Big, But Will They Go Bold?
Yves Engler
Canada and Saudi Arabia: Friends or Enemies?
Cesar Chelala
Can El Paso be a Model for Healing?
Mike Ferner
The Tragically Misnamed Paris Peace Conference
Barry Lando
Trump’s Enablers: Appalling Parallels
Ariel Dorfman
The Boy Who Taught Me About War and Peace
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail