I’m not a big boxing fan, but certain names are really entrenched in American culture: Robinson, Foreman, Ali, and Frazier… Despite my casual acquaintance with the topic, I was very happy that I chose to review the new documentary Joe Frazier: When the Smoke Clears.
It’s an odd thing to watch docs about athletes. The same way that it’s odd to see Lauren Bacall as a young flame, then see her today, 60+ years from her Bogey days, it’s also odd to watch robust youngsters turn into quiet old men. When it comes to age, I prefer to quote Indiana Jones: it’s not the years, it’s the mileage. Mr. Joe Frazier has a lot of mileage.
The real treat of this movie is that it puts Mr. Frazier in the proper context, and it does so in the past as well as today. For one thing, Frazier was one of the first real African-American phenoms during a time when US race relations were a real mess.
For another, Frazier’s ongoing commitment to his community is explored. I don’t just refer to boxers who started out at his gym, like Bernard Hopkins. See, many people feel that giving young boys some outlet is key to keeping them away from drugs and gangs. Hopkins himself was in trouble before he found his way. As I stated above, this documentary clearly conveys not only why its subject was important, but why it’s still relevant today.
One interviewee neatly explores something about the Frazier: that it was a shame that Joe entered boxing at about the same time as Muhammed Ali. While Frazier will always have the respect of boxing enthusiasts, it’s Ali whose name will always be remembered as the greatest. It’s like how Liz Hurley might fall out of public awareness, but everyone will always know Marilyn Monroe.
Not only was Ali more political and more camera-friendly, but his defeat of Frazier began his domination of the sport. Muhammed was not only a fine boxer, but he really played to the press in a way that people hadn’t seen before. Ali was so charismatic that, we learn about half-way through, people were calling Joe Frazier an “Uncle Tom” – one of the meanest slurs that can be thrown at a black man by anyone, much less his own people.
However, much like the man himself, JF:WtSC doesn’t focus on the idea that a great man was overshadowed by excellent competition. It takes the time to explain the rough circumstances of his childhood in Philadelphia. It tracks the impact that his career had on his family. It follows the current impact that Frazier has on his community, and the world today.