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I saw this film at the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival. It may seem hard to believe, but I've never seen a Ken Burns film. I've always meant to, of course, but watching a multi- part documentary series is something of a commitment. So I jumped at the chance to see an entire film in one sitting. Clocking in at an impressive 218 minutes (and including a short intermission and a lively Q&A session, I was in the theatre for almost 4½ hours), I was hoping that the quantity would be matched by the quality. I was not disappointed.
Jack Johnson was a true original. The first black man to hold the heavyweight boxing championship, he was a self-assured man who dressed well, drove fast cars, and kept white women as girlfriends. While not unusual now, this was highly irregular a hundred years ago, at a time when black lynchings were at their peak and the press regularly printed offensive cartoons to go along with its racist rhetoric. In the ring, he was a highly intelligent boxer, favouring a defensive style unknown in his day. He was also incredibly sensitive and articulate, especially for a man with only five years of formal education. But the struggles Johnson faced were almost insurmountable. No white champion would agree to fight a black man. Jim Jeffries preferred to retire undefeated rather than face Johnson, and Johnson had to travel around chasing champ Tommy Burns, hounding him to give him a title shot. When Burns finally agreed to a fight in 1908 (for a purse of $35,000, an unbelievable sum in those days), the contest wasn't even close, with Johnson dancing around, taunting his opponent, and talking to people in the ringside seats. The police stepped in during the fourteenth round to prevent him from knocking out the badly beaten Burns.
Johnson held the title from 1908 until 1915, with his most famous bout in 1910, against ex- champ Jeffries, whom he soundly defeated. This led to race riots all over the country, and many people were killed. From the moment he won the championship, it seemed that white society looked for ways to discredit him. The press were relentless, printing hostile editorials and calling for a "Great White Hope" who would return boxing's crown to its rightful place (and race). When a 37-year old Johnson finally lost the championship to Jess Willard, a giant man ten years his junior, it seemed to many that the black race had been taught an important lesson.
Johnson's life was troubled, and he continued to face persecution from the press and even law enforcement, who prosecuted him on charges related to his "debauchery" with white women. He eventually served a year in prison. There would not be another black heavyweight champion until Joe Louis, 22 years later.
This is a remarkable film for many reasons. First of all, in the little-known story of Jack Johnson, Burns has found a microcosm of the racial situation of the day, and one that has many echoes even now. Muhammad Ali, after seeing James Earl Jones portray Johnson in the Broadway play "The Great White Hope" (later made into a film), declared that Johnson's life story was similar to his own. A black man choosing to live as a free individual on his own terms is something that is still hard for some white people to tolerate.
Burns' film is also remarkable for the way in which it uses actual archival film of Johnson's bouts. Using silent film, Burns and his crew have added sound effects such as crowd noise and the sounds of blows connecting, and it gives these scenes the visceral punch they require. Finally, the superb "talking heads" (including the late George Plimpton, James Earl Jones, and the witty Stanley Crouch) and voice talent (Samuel L. Jackson is the voice of Johnson; others include Billy Bob Thornton, Derek Jacobi, Brian Cox, and Alan Rickman) bring the extraordinary story of Jack Johnson vividly to life.
As an added bonus, you get to hear James Earl Jones say "balls". Twice.
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