The story of Jack Johnson is huge. The first black Heavyweight Champion of the World, 1908 to 1915, he was rowdy, smart, rebellious, and proud. He was also resilient in the face of unrelenting racism. And, as Stanley Crouch observes in Ken Burns' Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, "There is nobody like Jack Johnson, because, first thing, when Jack Johnson was fighting, he could have been killed at any of his major fights. There were people out in the audience who were probably willing to murder him. He knew it, they knew it, everybody in the world knew it."
Talented and world-famous as a young man, as well as essentially unbeatable, Johnson was champion when (official, as opposed to underground) boxing was a wholly white province, when the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Jack London, all editorialized as to natural orders, in which African Americans were humble and inferior, and Caucasians were honorable, strong, and always right. And yet, as courageous and frankly brilliant as Jack Johnson was, his story is frequently forgotten in the wake of more recent flashy sports and other celebrities.
This despite the fact that he just about invented bling, at least in the form of gold teeth and fast cars. While the play and movie, The Great White Hope (both starring James Earl Jones, who serves as an interviewee for this film) complicate and celebrate Johnson's biography, this exceptional documentary fills in lots of blanks. At once wildly popular with most black audiences and grievously threatening for most whites, Johnson's achievements (his rise) are attached to his difficulties (his fall), most often, his relationships with white women, private relationships that he refused to hide. In his day, miscegenation was still an offense that inspired lynching.
Johnson's influence -- his pride in himself and his blackness, his excesses, ambition, and fortitude -- stretches into the future. And Burns' film, putting together the pieces of Johnson's remarkable life, reminds us not only of how it was, but also how it can be, when racism, combined with another sort of pride and excess, shapes legal limits and social attitudes. Jack Johnson, as he puts it, "was the brunette in a blonde town, but, gentlemen, I did not stop stepping." -- Cynthia Fuchs
Directed and produced by Ken Burns
Written by Geoffrey C. Ward
Narrated by Keith David
Voice of Jack Johnson by Samuel L. Jackson
Music by Wynton Marsalis
Edited by Erik Ewers
3 hours, 22 minutes, 2 parts, English audio, 2004
Feb 15, 2009, 20:18:44
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