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Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

Paramount Home Video / PBS Home Video

Featuring Samuel L. Jackson, Keith David, Stanley Crouch,
James Earl Jones, and Bert Sugar

Written by Geoffrey C. Ward
Directed by Ken Burns

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Review by J. Jordan Burke                    

The documentaries of Ken Burns are distinctive not merely because of his unique, formalist style, but also because of his singular focus upon American history. And throughout the director's many films — be they of modest or epic length — 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, which continues to challenge white and black Americans alike.

Thus, Unforgivable Blackness (2005) comes as little surprise, with Burns' cameras focusing upon a larger-than-life athlete who naturally draws so many of the filmmaker's preferred themes into sharp relief — Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight boxing champion, the first black media icon, and one of the first black Americans who stubbornly informed the dominant white classes that he would not conform to their expectations, let alone play the Uncle Tom.

Born in Gavelston, Texas, in 1878 to working-class parents who could afford him little opportunity, Johnson nonetheless learned to read and write at a young age, and by the time he became a young adult he discovered that boxing — and the lucrative living he could earn from it — could sate his natural ambition and allow him to abandon his dim future as a common laborer. Working with white promoters and traveling around the country from one event to the next, Johnson eventually earned a reputation in the prizefighting press. However, his ability to become the heavyweight champion was very much in doubt — previous champs John L. Sullivan and "Gentleman" Jim Corbett refused to offer a title shot to a Negro fighter, and the current title-holder, Jim Jeffries, also drew the "color line."

But after Jeffries retired, the title went to Canadian brawler Tommy Burns. It was Burns who finally gave Johnson a title shot, which he won in 1908. Immediately, the cry went up for a "great white hope" to reclaim the title, but when no fighter could be found to serve as an effective challenge, Jim Jeffries emerged from his five-year retirement for the "Fight of the Century," the most-hyped sporting event in American history, which occurred on July 4, 1910 in Reno, Nevada. Johnson won the fight, finally becoming the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world (even Jeffries admitted later that he never would have beaten Johnson on his best day). And yet, Jack Johnson's troubles were just beginning.

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Like anyone with wealth and a restless temperament, Jack Johnson thrived on activity — his love of expensive automobiles, still a new technology in the early part of the 20th century, was just as much born from his love of tinkering under the hood as his taste for speed (one wrench he invented was later patented). However, few suspected that Johnson also had a literary mind, although later in life, after earning some of his living in vaudeville reviews, he indicated that he would like to play Othello on the stage.

One can't imagine the comment was made without a certain self-awareness — after Johnson 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. Never shy about his dalliances with prostitutes and his preference for white women, Johnson often traveled and was photographed with white female companions. He went so far as to marry one, Etta Duryea, and within months of her suicide in 1912, he married Lucille Cameron, a known prostitute. However, the government became determined to prosecute Johnson under the recently passed Mann Act, which forbade taking women across state lines for prostitution or "immoral purposes," and a former companion, Belle Schreiber, was convinced to testify.

Rather than serve time for his 1913 conviction, Johnson fled to Europe, and then Mexico, only to return to the U.S. in 1920 to serve a one-year prison term. Johnson's ability to earn money as a fighter during the interim was hampered by the outbreak of World War I (Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on the day of a potentially lucrative bout), and when he faced big Jess Willard in 1915 in Havana, he lost the title to the white Kansas boy who was six inches taller, ten years younger, and an awful lot bigger. The next African American to claim the world title would be Joe Louis, and it wouldn't be for 22 years. Even then, Louis was careful to be everything Jack Johnson wasn't — modest, deferential, and soft-spoken. His managers wouldn't even allow him to be photographed with white women.

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That Jack Johnson's influence continues to resonate throughout American popular culture is undeniable. In the first two decades of the 20th century his talent and the controversy that followed him made him not only one of the most photographed people in America, but also the first genuine African American celebrity. Large and handsome with smooth features and a boyish, friendly face, his distinctive smile (and he smiled often) was marked by two prominent gold teeth. He was known as "The Ethiopian," and his visage became nothing less than iconic.

It has been seen many times since.

Muhammad Ali used to yell "Ghost in the house!" to fight fans when entering the ring, indicating that not only had he strapped on a pair of boxing gloves for the bout, but Jack Johnson as well. A young Mike Tyson may have lacked Johnson's verbal wit, but his bio offers loose parallels, from his financial extravagance to his turbulent personal life — and it's clear that, as a young man, Tyson was perfectly aware of Jack Johnson's legacy. And even in the NBA, Shaquille O'Neal calls up one more ghost in the house with his immense wealth and frequent toothy grin. 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 such raises the inevitable question — did Jordan's popularity cross color-lines to an unprecedented degree precisely because he wasn't flamboyant? Because he wasn't like Jack Johnson? After all, he sold underwear and batteries and his own line of Nikes and once refused to offer a political endorsement because "Republicans buy sneakers, too." Perhaps Jack Johnson, a savvy businessman in his own right, would have done the same. After all, he only wanted to be able to live as free, and be as wealthy, as Michael Jordan. But for Johnson, living free meant going against the grain. And in an America that passed by a century ago, history asked him to prove that athletic superiority was not solely the claim of the white race, but that it belonged only to superior athletes — even when they themselves were confounding contradictions of heroism, intemperance, and boundless confidence.

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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

— J. Jordan Burke

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