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Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

Documentarian Ken Burns seems to return to a handful of topics that have come to define the nation: the wars, the music, the sports, the near-mythic politicians, philosophers, and heroes. But no matter the subject, every Burns documentary contains an undercurrent of what can be regarded as the foremost social issue of American history — racial discrimination, and in particular the legacy of slavery. Thus, Unforgivable Blackness (2005) comes as little surprise, with Burns focusing upon an athlete who draws so many of the filmmaker's themes into sharp relief — Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight boxing champion. Born in Texas in 1878 to working-class parents who could afford him little opportunity, Johnson discovered that boxing could sate his natural ambition. He eventually earned a reputation in the prizefighting press, even though his ability to become the heavyweight champion was very much in doubt due to the fact that no Negro fighter had ever been granted a title shot. Johnson didn't become the champ until 1908, after which former champ Jim Jeffries emerged from his retirement for the "Fight of the Century." Johnson won, but his troubles were just beginning. After he became the first African American prizefighting champion, his own downfall was brought about by the senseless white hostility his dominance engendered, but also by a combination of his own intemperance and innate sense of self. Johnson often traveled with white female companions and went so far as to marry twice, both interracial pacts. However, the government became determined to prosecute Johnson under the recently passed Mann Act, for which he was convicted. Johnson fled to Europe, and then Mexico, only to return to the U.S. in 1920 to serve a one-year prison term. In the meantime, he lost his title in 1915 to Jess Willard. That Jack Johnson's influence continues to resonate throughout American popular culture is undeniable. He was known as "The Ethiopian," and his visage became nothing less than iconic. It has been seen many times since, from Muhammad Ali to Mike Tyson to Shaquille O'Neal. This is not to say that every African American athlete is an inheritor of Jack Johnson — Michael Jordan could be considered the most recognizable basketball player in history, and he usually preferred to let his performance on the court do the talking. But even if he wasn't like Jack Johnson, one suspects the fighter would have respected Jordan as a savvy businessman. After all, he only wanted to be able to live as free, and be as wealthy. Paramount and PBS Home Video's DVD release of Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, offers a solid transfer (1.33:1 OAR) and rich Dolby Digital 5.1 audio that highlights the voices of narrator Keith David and Samuel L. Jackson as Jack Johnson, as well as comments from James Earl Jones, writer Stanley Crouch, boxing historian Bert Sugar, and others. Supplements include "The Making of Unforgivable Blackness" (16 min.), nine deleted scenes, and a music video featuring Wynton Marsalis (4 min.), who scored the film. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.
—JJB

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