Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson


I think anybody that explores American history can’t help but be drawn to the question of race.
— Ken Burns, “The Making of Unforgivable Blackness

See, Johnson was a pure individual. He did everything exactly the way he wanted to. I don’t think it ever crossed his mind that he should be anybody else’s version of Jack Johnson.
— Stanley Crouch, Unforgivable Blackness

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.

With the man’s elusive history in mind, it’s appropriate that Unforgivable Blackness begins with a story that may or may not be true. Born in 1878 in Galveston, Texas, he ran away when he was 12 — or so he recalls (his self-narration, from letters and his autobiography, is read by Samuel L. Jackson) — to meet the man whom he most admired, who happened to reside in Brooklyn. This was Steve Brodie, self-proclaimed “Champion Bridge Jumper of the World, following a reported jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. Whether young Johnson actually made it to New York to shake Brodie’s hand is unclear, but the story helps to form part of his legend — an ambitious, determined youngster whose rise was inevitable, despite all odds. He began boxing as a teen in the Jim Crow South, and, as the film shows through images of anonymous black folks of the moment, life was difficult, even for the hardiest, most resolute child.

He spent years pursuing the chance to fight for the championship, which he won in 1908, in Australia against Tommy Burns. The reason that Burns, against the wisdom of most other white fighters, even gave the “Negro” a chance at the title, was the money — an unheard of $30,000; Johnson knocked him out in the 14th round. The fact that Johnson so plainly enjoyed beating up white challengers made him a fearsome specter. And as he always had, he refused to be moderate his behavior. Taking “orders from no one,” he posed what the film calls “a perpetual threat.” When, in 1910, he and Jim Jeffries fought the “Battle of the Century” in Reno, Nevada, stakes were high: it appears that every white American — save Johnson’s many girlfriends (Roberts calls him “heroically unfaithful”) — wanted the title returned to Jeffries (who had been, at that point, retired for several years, coming back because so heartily pressed into salvaging the white race’s good name).

Jeffries’ loss, observes Roberts in the film, incited a kind of panic. “The press reacted as if Armageddon was here. That this may be the moment when it all starts to fall apart for white society.” Indeed, race riots broke out in major cities, and Congress got to work on legislation that would ban the release of fight films, at the time very lucrative industry (Johnson’s victories tended to play in black theaters, further distressing lawmakers and others). “His real crime,” the film observes, “was beating Jim Jeffries.”

Johnson persisted in traveling openly with white women (often, “sporting women,” or prostitutes, one of whom, 19-year-old Lucille Cameron, he eventually married), and so he was eventually arrested and convicted, in 1912, of violating the Mann Act (Lucille’s beside-herself mother instigated the proceedings, though Belle Schreiber testified against him). This despite the fact that the act, passed in 1910, outlawed the transportation of women in interstate or foreign commerce, “for the purpose of prostitution, debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose”; in other words, it was designed to stop commercial prostitution, not consenting individuals. But in the eyes of the white legal system, relations between black men and white women could not possibly be consensual.

Johnson fled the country (in a great story recounted in the film, he escapes by boarding a train with a Negro League team, unnoticed by authorities because they “couldn’t tell one big black man from another”). When he eventually returned, in 1920 (after he had lost the title to a white boxer, Jess Willard, in 1915), he did his year in prison, where he trained aspiring boxers and then returned to his loving wife Lucille.

As Burns and his crew explain in the making of documentary included on PBS’ DVD of Unforgivable Blackness, they were faced, for once, with an abundance of visual material (this was quite different from their own history, of scrounging for images, photos and papers concerning the Civil War or baseball or long forgotten jazz musicians). “Some fights were filmed from multiple camera angles,” beams Burns. And while these shots were static and wide (no close-ups or no mobile frames), they did allow for editors to “crop in and recompose, to create medium shots.”

These creations emphasize Johnson’s remarkable smile — in the ring, on the street, on the vaudeville stage where he performed between bouts, to maintain his lavish lifestyle. The images are digitized and cleaned up images to look crisp, and the editors employed “classic techniques of montage to create a kind of urgency about boxing,” sound designs that include crowd and punches and grunts, so the lengthy (25 or more rounds) bouts might be cut into digestible and exciting bits. As Burns has it, this sort of futzing around with the archival material was new for him, and the film has a “new, experimental feeling in the editing, the music, and the rip-snorting story.”

The movie, based in part on Geoffrey C. Ward’s book, is slightly less than “rip-snorting,” in that it takes up a typically Burnsian pace, including period-style music (composed by Wynton Marsalis) and an impressive array of actors reading from letters and newspaper articles, calling him “the Negro,” “the Ethiopian,” and other more offensive terms (Amy Madigan as Johnson’s mistress Belle Schreiber, Billy Bob Thornton, Alan Rickman), as well as interviews with a variety of experts (Crouch, Gerald Early, Bert Sugar, George Plimpton). The film’s first part focuses on Johnson’s professional ascent, the second on his takedown by U.S. authorities unhappy that the “honor of the white race” had been lost when he became “the strongest man in the world,” or even better, “the emperor of masculinity.” Yet, if the film’s basic structure is pedestrian, Burns is right about one thing: Johnson booms off the screen in every image.

Many of these are stills — most posed for magazines, promotional posters, and newspapers, as well as others, apparently records of more intimate moments, with his mistresses and wives, and with his beloved sports cars (at one point, he owned five, which he loved to drive fast and to crank up the engines to ensure he was heard, roaring through city streets, and it’s perhaps fitting that he died in a car crash following an excessively speedy drive instigated by his rage at his treatment at a Jim Crow restaurant). He was a beautiful man, large, looming, and voracious: he played the bass, resisted entreaties from moderate black authorities like Booker T. Washington that he behave as a proper role model.

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.”