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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.
Ken Burns has done an amazing documentary on the life of Jack Johnson
-but even more amazing is the story he tells of the times in which
Johnson lived. There is still racism in this country, for sure - one
wants to believe that at least in most parts of the country, it is a
little more circumspect than racism was during Johnson's life. This
documentary provides a truly astounding look at this country at the
beginning of the century, and a lot of it is unattractive. Johnson,
called "The Ethiopian," could not go after the heavyweight title
because the white fighters swore no black man would ever have it. When
he finally did get it, Jim Jefferson, the undefeated champion, who had
refused to fight Johnson, was dragged out of retirement 10 years and
100 pounds later to try to reclaim the title. He failed, and commented
that in his prime, he could never have beat Johnson.
In his belief system, Johnson came up against a contemporary, Booker T. Washington, who believed that, rather than worry about segregation, blacks should build a power, education, and money base first. Johnson preferred to live as if segregation did not exist. He lived in white neighborhoods, moved his mother into one, flaunted his money, and consorted with white women. His quest for individualism cost him dearly. He bucked a system that simply would not stand for it.
This is a fascinating piece of our history, one that should not be missed.
One of History's most amazing stories. One couldn't make this up
because the facts of this man's life is unbelievable. Just amazingly
pieced together documentary that flows seamlessly and doesn't have any
dead wait despite length, although more boxing footage would be
Jack Johnson's words narrated by Samuel Jackson is just truly amazing and moving, a self-educated (extremely) articulate son of a slave that just happens to box, and not get murdered by a white mob, despite spiting in the eye of societies standards and the status-quo. One of histories truly amazing characters. Not to mention, one of the best fighters of all-time, if not the best. Far ahead of his time in every instance, a much more articulate and socially important version of Terrell Owens of his day, or even Ali. This is a must see with a great subject, filmmakers, and a dream team of narrators, although more James Earl Jones would have been fantastic.
As the author of a biography about Canadian heavyweight champion Tommy Burns, I can tell you Unforgivable Blackness didn't tell the whole story by portraying Tommy as a racist who had to be badgered into fighting Jack Johnson. Until Tommy Burns came along, all the heavyweight kings had been white Americans who openly drew the so-called 'colour line,' refusing to fight blacks. Tommy, who fought seven African-American boxers on his way up, announced the day that he won the title that he would take on all comers, regardless of race or religion. Among other things, Tommy Burns did the following: * Break the colour line by becoming the first white champ to fight a black boxer (Jack Johnson). * Become the first champ to give a Jewish boxer (Joseph Smith) a crack at the title. * Married a black woman. * Hire two black sparring partners. * Befriend and socialize with black fighter Billy Woods. Tommy Burns was a racist by the standards of 2007, often using the 'n' word in interviews. But by the standards of his era, he was a very progressive individual. And although director Ken Burns doesn't acknowledge it in his otherwise very good film, if it wasn't for Tommy Burns, no one alive today would know or care who Jack Johnson was. Dan McCaffery, author, Tommy Burns: Canada's Unknown World Heavyweight Champion
What a perfect documentary. What a master Ken Burns is. Unforgivable is
the story of the indestructible Jack Johnson, the first black
heavyweight boxing champion, whose legendary style downed even the
toughest white contenders inside the ring, and sent almost every white
American into a frenzy of racial contempt for him, outside the ring.
Jack Johnson is such a rich subject; it seems we could never tire of him. He was the rags to riches American dream. He was the champ who repulsed an entire generation of whites - refuting their fundamental belief that blacks were by nature inferior beings. He was the pioneer that paved the way for future black athletes, who had formerly been relegated to Negro leagues. And he was the social trailblazer as well, integrating with whites in unprecedented and often dangerous ways.
Now Burns has reconstructed his life in and outside the ring through this wonderful collection of photos, interviews, film reels and archival documents. In short, I've seen no other documentary that so pungently depicts the black struggle to be accepted, and indeed, free in America.
Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, is usually seen as
one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. Ken Burns' "Unforgivable
Blackness" paints a picture of Johnson as a great defensive fighter,
ranging from his roots in mainly all-black boxing to showing him
demonstrating moves to a younger fighter when Johnson was well into
middle age. Indeed, Johnson used his defensive skills to beat not only
white boxers like ex-champion Jim Jeffries, in the 1910 racially
charged championship bout in Las Vegas, but top black boxers like Joe
Jeannete, Sam Langford, and Sam McVey. The pumped-up strong boys in
today's diffuse heavyweight division look physically fearsome, but I
believe Johnson's defensive skills would have made it difficult for
anyone to beat him, including Mike Tyson in his prime.
The portrayal of Johnson in the "Boxing's Best" series was excellent, but nearly three hours shorter than this 216-minute documentary. Some of the same footage and photos are in this video, but here we get more footage and far more of other stuff. Shown are footage of Johnson's fights with Jeffries, Tommy Burns (from whom he won the title), Fireman Jim Flynn, Stanley Ketchel, and Frank Moran, and other boxing clips of himself and others. The buildup, aftermath, and social meaning of the Jeffries fight are thorough and thoughtfully done.
White champions since John L. Sullivan in the 1880s had refused to fight black challengers until Johnson defeated Burns. The subsequent efforts at finding a great white hope are shown (although one omission was no mention of the greatest white hope, Luther McCarty, who died during a match and thus never got to fight Johnson). For whites, regaining the championship was important. Another omission was not mentioning that Johnson lost to white boxer Marvin Hart, who then won the title after Jeffries retired (later, Johnson crushed Burns, who had beaten Hart). I am suspicious of some of the decisions given to white boxers over black boxers in those days. Or, was it a legitimate victory? How about a comment, Ken?
What about Johnson the man? Jack Johnson was an individual to himself and to his own desires. He was not someone who, as the first black heavyweight champion, saw himself as a role model for his race and therefore, obliged to behave in a certain fashion, whether it be, say, more defiant than compliant with white standards. He liked to live the high life, dress well, eat well, drive fancy cars and race cars, perform on vaudeville, etc. Originally from Galveston Texas, he is also the Jack Johnson of Europe and Australia and Cuba and Mexico. He was always on the go, whether chasing Tommy Burns all over the earth to pressure him to fight him for the championship or running off to another country because of trumped-up charges of violation of the Mann Act. Much effort was made to produce expansive footage and photography: Ken Burns tried hard and succeeded.
Johnson and white women would not be such a taboo item today, but would narrators concede in private (they do not in narration) that his being such a frequent consort of prostitutes can justifiably be seen as a negative trait anytime? For this and his individualism and flamboyancy, he was detested by whites and also some blacks.
But Johnson did not care. The film briefly mentions some parallels with Muhammad Ali. However, while Ali could be angered, by political and social issues, and by black opponents calling him Cassius Clay, Johnson was just carefree. He laughed at racial abuse given him in the ring. Ironically, after having such a hard time getting a white champion to fight him, Johnson denied black fighters a chance to fight him because white challengers would result in bigger purses (and presented less risk).
The commentators are writers like Gerald Early (who was also on Burns' "Baseball" and "Jazz" documentaries), Stanley Crouch, Jack Newfield, and George Plimpton; Johnson biographer Randy Roberts; boxing expert Bert Sugar; former light heavyweight champion Jose Torres; James Earl Jones (who played Johnson in "The Great White Hope"), and others. One thing that was better about "Unforgivable Blackness" than "Baseball" was that the celebrity non-baseball experts infused some nonsense into the latter (I enjoyed the baseball personalities); here, the commentators consistently add insights and are knowledgeable about boxing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is an amazingly long and detailed biography about the first black
heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson. In an era where blacks were,
at best, second-rate citizens, Johnson had a brashness and arrogance
that made it even more difficult for white America to accept him. And,
incidentally, many black Americans disliked him as well. This was
because he slept with prostitutes--many of them. And, many of these
women were white--a sin which few seemed willing to forgive. As a
result, even though he was the undisputed champ, he was often reviled.
Many will be amazed at just how horrid the hatred was--with vile
comments by supposedly upright citizens and newspaper accounts that are
embarrassingly hateful. What happened next, you'll just need to see for
yourself--but much of Johnson's downfall, unfortunately, was his own
"Unforgivable Blackness" is a perfect or near perfect film. Some might balk at the great length of the film, but is grand style and quality are apparent throughout the movie. Incidentally, if you want to see more about this amazing but flawed man, try watching "The Great White Hope" with James Earl Jones, a slight reworking of the story of Johnson.
By the way, it's not a major beef, but this show repeats a very commonly accepted myth. While President Woodrow Wilson was a horrible man (don't even get me started...), the comments he supposedly made after seeing the racist film "Birth of a Nation" were actually never made. The Writer Thomas Dixon apparently made up this quote. Do a little research on the web, you'll see what I mean.
Also, although they never mentioned it in the film, it was illegal for a black and white couple to marry in many states in the US at the time and remained so until the early 1960s. Sad.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Along with a compelling portrait of the first black World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, "Unforgivable Blackness" presents a dynamic history of America at the turn of the Twentieth Century and the prevalent attitudes toward race relations only a half decade removed from the Civil War. In his quest to become champion, Jack Johnson infuriated white America by the way he lived his life, and at certain points, managed to earn the enmity of fellow blacks as well while consorting with white women and living a flagrant lifestyle. Most remarkable, to me at least, was the actual boxing footage from the early 1900's, preserved to an astonishing degree while presenting Johnson's skill in the ring and his ever apparent smile while destroying opponents and challenging the world to accept his equanimity in the face of physical and verbal abuse. When one thinks about it, it's probably a miracle that the man survived his near decade as champion without enduring an assassination attempt. At nearly three and a half hours, Ken Burns has once again done his homework in presenting a narrative that's as compelling as any drama, and offers a rich history for sport and history buffs alike.
The one thing that did surprise me about this otherwise impressive
documentary that Ken Burns put together about Jack Johnson was that he
did not use some archival recordings of Jack Johnson and for that
matter Jess Willard's voice. Both are available, in fact on one of my
vinyl LPs I have them. In the case of Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson
captured both his voice and inflections of attitude quite well.
When Joe Louis became heavyweight champion it was as much a milestone for racial equality as Jackie Robinson integrating professional baseball. Louis was a man conscious of what this country was around him as was Robinson and sought to become a hero to all. When he knocked out Max Schmeling in that second fight he did just that.
Jack Johnson was a man born in a much harder and crueler time when black Americans may have been freed from slavery, but not from the attitudes that engendered it. He was the best at his sport, he knew it and he made sure everyone else knew it. It was only in 1967 that miscegenation laws were finally done away with by the Supreme Court, but in the years Johnson was in his boxing prime they were enforced with a vengeance. It galled a large section of white America that saw him keep public company with white women and even more that he beat just about every challenger black and white thrown at him.
Looking at the Johnson-Jeffries fight of 1910 to me it's almost unfathomable that people could have invested so much in Jeffries in their racist hopes. Jim Jeffries licked all before him when he retired in 1905 undefeated in the ring. Probably had he taken on Johnson and such other black contenders like Sam Langford, Joe Jeanette, and Sam McVey he might well have beaten them. But the Jeffries who had been out of the ring for almost six years was never going to take on Jack Johnson in his prime. If anyone bothered to filter through all the racial crap and examined the situation logically no one would have bet on Jeffries.
James J. Corbett another former champion who Jeffries beat twice in comeback attempts and who worked to train Jeffries for the bout was accused of racism. Probably so, he like many tossed a lot of racial epithets to get Johnson to lose his cool in the ring, but Burns mentions that Tom Corbett, Jim's brother was the chief bookie for bets on the fight in Reno. There was barely any money bet on Johnson, so the Corbett family may have had racial sympathies with Jeffries, but they would have cleaned up on all the money bet on Jeffries with them.
When Johnson did lose to Jess Willard in 105 degree heat in Havana in 1915, he was passed his prime also and the years of high living cost him, probably put him passed his prime a lot sooner than he would have gotten there. Still seven years is a long time to be a boxing champion in any division. I remember as a kid when film of the Willard-Johnson fight were discovered, having thought to have been lost for years, Jess Willard was still alive and somewhat vindicated that he in fact won a clear victory despite all the rumors that Johnson had thrown the fight. It was 26 rounds in that tropical heat and Willard just outlasted Johnson, the same Johnson outlasted an over the hill Jim Jeffries.
Why the heavyweight division was so racially sacrosanct was still a mystery. Joe Gans and Lampblack Joe Walcott were lightweight and welterweight champions at the time Johnson was champion and while life was no bed of roses for either of them, they never encountered the animosity that Johnson faced. He did in fact not fight those boxers I mentioned before when he won his title. The white champions didn't fight for racial reasons, but Johnson wouldn't fight them because they wouldn't draw any kind of gate. Sad, but he was right on the economics.
It was also mentioned that he wanted to fight Jack Dempsey in the Twenties. Quite frankly if he couldn't take Willard, he would have been slaughtered by Dempsey in his prime. But Dempsey also refused to fight a great black heavyweight named Harry Wills who was left begging for a title shot and Wills would have been a match. The first black on black heavyweight title fight was when Joe Louis fought John Henry Lewis for the title in the late Thirties.
Jack Johnson was a man out of his time as much as Joe Louis was a man of his. When Muhammed Ali came to the fore a lot of boxing fans and historians were taking a second look at Johnson and giving him is long overdue due. A lot of people say he was the greatest heavyweight champion of all time and one can make a great case for it.
Which is what Ken Burns did in this extraordinary documentary.
As a youngster I heard about this man Jack Johnson. Even then I thought
those same stories were fiction. Afterall, no one could convince me
that, in the early 1900's a black, Negro, could have possibly conducted
his life in such a way to disdain social mores not only to the degree
in and of itself, but more so in his audacity.
Marrying and dating white women?? Come on. And he did not get killed? It shows that even for those times, America had this certain elasticity in dealing with a unique personality such as Johnson's.
This movie weaves his life thoughtfully, slowly (a 2 disc set after all) and with dignity. The voices that contributed to this story is so widely varied that I implore you to check the movie's credits. From Ed Harris, Kevin Conway, Samuel L. Jackson and the lead narrator, Keith David. But these voices aren't the complete range of contributors. For this kind of talent to come together is a testament to the power of the story and the pull that director Ken Burns commands.
Unforgivable Blackness ... is a powerful, thought provoking part of the American Experience. To that end, PBS deserves continued credit for bringing history to the masses.
Humbly Submitted and with deep emotions, Ron W.
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