MOVIES: "Unforgivable Blackness:
The Rise And Fall of Jack Johnson"
He was bigger than Eminem, Mike Tyson and Michael Jordan put together. His name was Jack Johnson, and he was the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world, nearly a century ago. Yet few people today even remember his name. Shown last year on PBS and now out on DVD, Ken Burns' grand documentary, "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson," reintroduces Johnson's fascinating story to a world he helped pave the way for.
It's got that high-prestige, sepia-toned feel of most Burns documentaries, and the formula -- rare film footage, stills, recreations and a variety of bow-tied experts interviewed for the camera -- can get old in some of Burns' other work. But "Unforgivable Blackness" is fresh and compelling, largely because few Americans know much about this mysterious, pivotal figure.
"For more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous, and the most notorious, African-American on Earth," Burns says. Burns shows us that Johnson was post-Civil War white America's worst nightmare — big and tough, headstrong, eloquent, a fine dresser, an inventor, given to mocking his white opponents in the ring, and without a doubt worst of all to people then, he loved white women. Johnson was married three times to white women and dated countless others. Given the tenor of the times, it's amazing he wasn't assassinated.
Born in 1878 to ex-slaves, Jack Johnson knew how to fight. He become a professional boxer around the turn of the century, developing a powerful reputation. Johnson was proud, refused to be deferent to whites, and wanted to become the first black heavyweight champion. But no white would fight him for the title, even though his skills were clearly worthy, not wanting to "sully" it. After years of trying to get a shot, Johnson finally took on the champion, Tommy Burns – and beat him decisively, winning the title he longed for. "The press reacted [to Johnson's victory] as if Armageddon was here," recalls one of Johnson's biographers.
The white ruling class was determined to find "the great white hope" and win back the title. After numerous easy wins for Johnson, the former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries was persuaded to take him on in a hugely hyped battle in Reno in 1910. Johnson knocked Jeffries out in the 15th round. The fight and win by the "savage" spawned fatal race riots throughout America.
They couldn't bring Johnson down in the ring. So they went after him in the courts, using the Mann Act -- an anti-prostitution law -- to go after him for his relationships with white women. Though the act wasn't aimed at consenting adults, no matter. Johnson was convicted, but fled the country to avoid prison. Even after, at age 37, he was finally beaten in Cuba by a white contender and lost the title, Johnson wouldn't "play nice." Ultimately, he did come back to America to face "justice." Ten years after being champion of the world, he was in prison for a year-long stay. But even then, he persevered, and lived to age 68, when the speed-loving Johnson died in a car wreck.
The deeply ingrained, utterly unapologetic mass racism of the era shown in "Unforgivable Blackness" is more than disturbing -- it's disgusting and will turn your stomach. Johnson seems impossibly heroic, in an era where lynchings were commonplace, standing alone in the ring battling a white man before a gigantic crowd of jeering whites, many of whom would love to see him dead. While we're a long way from perfect today, American has certainly come a long way since the ugly public white superiority of Johnson's time.
"Unforgivable Blackness" is given life by a treasure trove of rare, nearly 100-year-old films and photos. Johnson leaps off the screen; if he were alive today, he'd be a media star. The amazing fight footage is mesmerizing, like watching gladiators from the inky past come to life. And who else could voice Johnson here (in excerpts read from his autobiography) other than Samuel L. Jackson?
Even if you're not a big fan of boxing, the broader struggle of Johnson's life makes for compelling viewing. Burns really evokes the pre-World War I American society, where most blacks were facing conditions not all that different from slavery. We see excerpts of the 1915 hit movie "Birth of a Nation," the appallingly racist pro-Ku Klux Klan PR film, and countless examples of Johnson being condescended to, ignored and berated by the media of the time. While at four hours (over two DVDs), "Unforgivable Blackness" isn't a short film, the time speeds by. It's a fine ode to a remarkable life.