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The Most Politically Charged Event in Sports History

On June 22, 1938, when heavyweight champ Joe Louis entered the ring at Yankee Stadium to defend his title against Germany’s Max Schmeling, the approximately 70,000 fans in attendance — and the 70 million people tuned to their radios — knew that this was no ordinary bout. Occurring mere months after Germany annexed Austria, the fight was seen as nothing less than a battle of ideologies: democracy facing off against Adolf Hitler’s Aryan nation.

Some 66 years later, director Barak Goodman has revisited what journalist David Margolick calls “the most politically charged event in the history of sports.” Goodman’s documentary about the Louis-Schmeling bout, entitled “The Fight,” premieres this month at the Sundance Film Festival. It will air on the PBS series “American Experience” in 2005. (Margolick’s companion book is scheduled to be published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2005.)

Born in Berkeley, Calif., and raised in Philadelphia, the 40-year-old Goodman graduated from Harvard University and Columbia University Journalism School. He worked briefly at Newsday before deciding to make documentaries. In the 1995 Emmy-nominated “Daley: The Last Boss,” he profiled the career of former Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley. Soon after, he and his wife, “Frontline” producer Rachel Dretzin, teamed up to make “Failure to Protect,” a two-part series about child protection services in Maine, and the Peabody Award-winning documentary “The Lost Children of Rockdale County” (1999), about teens’ disaffection in an Atlanta suburb. They also produced “The Merchants of Cool” (2001), about teen consumers and the marketers who target them, and are currently working on a documentary about the pioneer sex researcher Alfred Kinsey.

With “The Fight,” Goodman returns to chronicling social history. “The Fight” weaves vintage 1930s footage and photographs with contemporary interviews with American and German journalists, boxing experts and fans, and friends of Louis. The result is a complex character study of two boxers — and one fight — usurped by world events. And the film is an opportunity to mine the turf where Jews and African-Americans met. It’s familiar territory for Goodman: He wrote and directed the Academy Award-nominated and Emmy Award-winning documentary “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy,” about the trial involving nine black men falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931 and the Jewish lawyer who defended them.

“I’m fascinated by the bonds between Jews and African-Americans,” Goodman said, in an interview with the Forward. “Both the Scottsboro trial and Louis-Schmeling galvanized anti-Fascist, anti-racist movements at a time when there was little else bringing them together.”

In the late 1930s, Goodman notes, Louis was considered a novelty. At 24, the “Brown Bomber” was the youngest heavyweight champ in history and just the second black heavyweight title-holder. Louis approached the fight with one overriding thought: to avenge his loss to Schmeling in an earlier bout, the first and (to that point) only defeat of his career. But pre-fight hype overtook the soft-spoken Louis, who found himself embraced by an entire nation. In what was then a rare honor for an African-American, he was invited to the White House. There, President Franklin D. Roosevelt squeezed his biceps and told him, “We need muscles like yours to beat Germany.”

“Louis was the first African-American to have whites in his corner, literally and figuratively,” Goodman said. “He became a symbolic leader, something he didn’t ask for and in some ways wasn’t suited for, and had to don the mask of the ‘good Negro.’”

By contrast, Schmeling was nearly 33 years old in 1938 — ancient by boxing standards. After winning the heavyweight title in 1930 and marrying Czech movie star Anny Ondra, he had been the toast of the Weimar Republic. When Hitler took over, the chameleon-like Schmeling accommodated the new regime and its anti-Jewish laws. He never became a Nazi Party member, but he accepted the persecution and prosecution of Jews. And, after he defeated Louis in their first fight in 1936, he was championed by the Nazis.

After signing on to fight Louis in the rematch, Schmeling tried to downplay the political overtones of the fight, but he couldn’t stanch the flow. American newspaper columnists called him Hitler’s stooge and the “Heil Hitler hero”; the crowd spat at him when he walked to the Yankee Stadium ring. As historian Chris Mead once wrote, “The swastika hugged Schmeling like flypaper.”

With this near-hysterical buildup, the bout itself was a savage punctuation mark. Louis swarmed Schmeling from the opening bell, breaking two vertebrae with one punch and decking him three times. Just 124 seconds into the first round — what one journalist called “two minutes and four seconds of murder” — referee Arthur Donovan halted the fight and declared Louis the winner.

Harlemites erupted in triumph, as did many white Americans previously unaccustomed to cheering for blacks. Goodman compared the moment to the alliance generated by the Scottsboro trial. “There was this nexus between the Jewish left and the African-American left,” he said, “because they had a common struggle. It was so moving for me to talk with old-timers who shared this vision of the world and helped each other.”

The aftermath of the epic fight would reveal several ironic twists. Despite being lionized as the Nazi-vanquisher, Louis soon lost control of his career and his finances. He served in the Army during World War II — the prime of his fighting career — and then retired owing millions to the IRS. He ended his days broke and pitiable. Schmeling’s defeat, on the other hand, may have saved him. Shunned by the Nazis, he fought for Germany in the war and then got on with his life. He hitched his ride to Coca-Cola as the owner of a distributorship in Germany, grew wealthy, and reportedly sent money to Louis until the American died in 1981. At 98, currently the world’s oldest living boxing champ, Schmeling lives in Germany, near Hamburg.

As Goodman and co-producer John Maggio prepare to screen “The Fight” at the Sundance Film Festival, they acknowledge that having the documentary accepted by the prestigious Utah-based festival has helped to raise its profile. “It’s a turbo-boosted rocket for the film,” Goodman said. “Now we’re getting attention.”

David Davis, who is based in Los Angeles, is a frequent Forward contributor.

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