“When our country was on it’s knees, he brought America to his feet.” So is 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 shantytowns make for great cinematography and 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- [email protected]. Contact him at [email protected].