'Unforgivable Blackness': the trials of boxer Jack Johnson


Film director Ken Burns, clockwise from right, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, call for a presidential pardon Tuesday, July 13, 2004, for the late Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, seen on poster, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. In "Unforgivable Blackness," a Burns documentary to be aired on Martin Luther King Day, Johnson is revealed as a complicated figure who embodied the African-American struggle to be free in this country. Second from right, is boxer Vernon Forrest.

AP File Photo/Lauren Burke
Published: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 2:10 a.m.

Facts

PBS special airs Monday, Tuesday

  • What: "Unforgivable Blackness: the Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, " a four-hour documentary on the first black ever to win the world heavyweight boxing title. Narrated by Keith David, with Samuel L. Jackson voicing Jack Johnson. Directed by Ken Burns.
  • When: 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday
  • Where: WUFT Channel 5 (Cox Cable channel 3)

  • Flamboyant, buoyant Jack Johnson had only one generic attribute - his name. He otherwise lived fast and drove faster without caution or regret. And oh yes, he was the first black heavyweight boxing champion when those were fighting words to most of white America.
    Ken Burns' latest documentary film, ''Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,'' tellingly takes the measure of the man and his times. For all of his life, Johnson fought opponents in the ring and racism almost everywhere else. And he did so entirely on his terms, bowing and scraping to no one during a 68-year life that stretched from the post-Civil War Reconstruction era through World War II.
    ''When black Americans were expected to defer to whites, Jack Johnson battered them to the ground,'' narrator Keith David says in the four-hour film's opening minutes Monday night. ''To most whites and to some African-Americans, Johnson was a perpetual threat - profligate, arrogant, amoral, a dark menace and a danger to the natural order of things.''
    He pre-dated Jackie Robinson and presaged Muhammad Ali, breaking color lines with the sheer force of both his personality and his punch. The heavyweight championship eluded him until age 30, only because no white titleholder would give him a shot until the since-forgotten Tommy Burns succumbed to what then was a mega-payday dangled by promoter Hugh ''Huge Deal'' McIntosh.
    For a guaranteed $30,000, Burns finally stepped into the ring with Johnson on Dec. 26, 1908, after repeatedly proclaiming, ''All coons are yellow.'' Both the fight and the filming of it were ordered to a halt in the 14th round.
    The chump of a champ was out on his feet, but theatergoers wouldn't be allowed to see newsreel footage of him hitting the canvas at the hands of a black man. That would be intolerable.
    Famed novelist Jack London, who was at ringside, wrote of ''a grown man cuffing a naughty child. . . . It was not a case of too much Johnson, but of all Johnson.''
    Ken Burns, in his third decade of making mostly exemplary films for PBS, is reliably deft in melding music, images and words to the story at hand. As with his elongated ''Baseball'' series, he also plays up the racial divides of the times. Johnson's athletic exploits constitute far more than a mere sports story.
    His most famous ring victory, a 15th round knockout of an out-of-retirement Jim Jeffries, triggered riots across the land and a stinging editorial rebuke from none other than the Los Angeles Times. In ''A Word to the Black Man,'' the newspaper warned: ''Do not boast too loudly. Do not be puffed up. Let not your ambition be inordinate or take a wrong direction. Remember you have done nothing at all. You are just the same member of society you were last week. You are on no higher plane, deserve no new consideration, and will get none.''
    Born in Galveston, which he quickly put behind him, Johnson lived to take what he wanted. His many white woman companions, most of them former prostitutes, eventually became the seeds of his downfall. The federal government prosecuted and convicted him for violating the Mann Act, which forbade interstate travels with women for ''the purpose of prostitution, debauchery or for any other immoral purpose.''
    Johnson's sham ''crime'' had been committed before the law existed, which mattered not to those who wanted him humbled. He fled abroad while awaiting an appeal trial. Even so, yet another ''Great White Hope'' was being groomed to take Johnson's title. Towering Jess Willard and the aging champ finally fought in steaming Havana, Cuba, in 1915.
    In Round 26, Willard knocked out his wobbly foe with a crunching right hand. America at large rejoiced; it would be 14 years before another black man was even allowed to fight for the heavyweight title and 22 years before the comparatively genteel Joe Louis would win it.
    ''Unforgivable Blackness,'' also newly available on DVD, has revealing if grainy footage of Johnson's key title fights. The pugilists look anything but graceful, pawing and clinching rather than throwing any grand, glorious Sunday punches. The fights are riveting nonetheless as artifacts from what now seem to be prehistoric times. Burns occasionally adds grunts, oomphs and thwacks, stopping just short of overdoing it.
    Actor Samuel L. Jackson sturdily voices Johnson, who told a reporter shortly before his death, ''Just remember, whatever you write about me, that I was a man.''
    Billy Bob Thornton, Ed Harris, Carl Lumbly, Alan Rickman, Amy Madigan and others also lend their off-camera voices to the film. On-camera interviewees include James Earl Jones, who played Johnson on the Broadway stage in ''The Great White Hope'' and then starred in the same-named 1970 feature film.
    Burns clearly admires his subject but doesn't fall into a full swoon. Johnson's drinking, womanizing and attendant physical abuse of his women companions and wives is dealt with if not dwelt on.
    ''I always take a chance on my pleasures,'' he once said.
    The film mostly avoids addressing the dicey issue of Johnson's lifelong preference for white women. But a companion book by Geoffrey Ward, who also wrote the script for ''Unforgivable Blackness,'' includes a firsthand account from pioneering black actress Ethel Waters.
    She recalls telling Johnson, ''It's universally known, Jack, that you have the white fever.'' To which she says he replied, ''I like colored women. I could love a colored woman. But they never give me anything. Colored women just won't play up to a man the way white girls do. . . . No matter how colored women feel toward a man, they don't spoil him and pamper him and build up his ego. They don't try to make him feel like he's somebody.''
    Jack Johnson was somebody, all right. His explosive July 4, 1910, title fight with Jim Jeffries remains unequaled as a volatile mix of pure boxing drama in an impure sociological context. But his undeterred, lifelong determination to be his own man is the rock on which ''Unforgivable Blackness'' is built.

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