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Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson 2004
Description: The storyline of Jack Johnson, the first African American Heavyweight boxing champion.
Released: 17 Jan 2005 Director: Ken Burns Writers: Geoffrey C. Ward Actors: Jack Johnson, Keith David, Samuel L. Jackson, Adam Arkin Genres: Documentary, Biography, Sport
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See Jack Johnson Breaking Barrie on youtube.

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See Rare Jack Johnson Documentary on youtube.

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Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson Reviews:

I saw this movie at the 2004 Toronto International Movie Festival. It may seem difficult to believe, but I've never seen a Ken Burns film. I've everytime meant to, of course, but watching a multi- part documentary series is something of a commitment. So I jumped at the possibility to see an whole movie in one sitting. Clocking in at an impressive 218 mins (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 real original. The first black boy to keep the heavyweight boxing championship, he was a self-assured boy who dressed well, drove quick cars, and kept white girls 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 clever boxer, favouring a defensive style unknown in his day. He was also incredibly sensitive and articulate, especially for a boy with only five years of formal education. But the struggles Johnson faced were almost insurmountable. No white winner would accept to war 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 game shot. When Burns finally accepted to a war in 1908 (for a purse of $35,000, an wonderful sum in those days), the contest wasn't even close, with Johnson dancing around, taunting his opponent, and talking to folks 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 game from 1908 until 1915, with his most popular bout in 1910, vs ex- champ Jeffries, whom he soundly defeated. This led to race riots all over the country, and many folks were killed. From the moment he won the championship, it seemed that white society looked for methods 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 zone (and race). When a 37-year old Johnson finally lost the championship to Jess Willard, a giant boy ten years his junior, it seemed to many that the black race had been taught an necessary lesson.Johnson's life was troubled, and he continued to face persecution from the press and even law enforcement, who prosecuted him on charges similar to his "debauchery" with white women. He eventually served a year in prison. There would not be other black heavyweight winner until Joe Louis, 22 years later.This is a remarkable movie for many reasons. First of all, in the little-known storyline of Jack Johnson, Burns has found a microcosm of the racial case of the day, and one that has many echoes even now. Muhammad Ali, after seeing James Earl Jones portray Johnson in the Broadway enjoy "The Nice White Hope" (later made into a film), declared that Johnson's life storyline was related to his own. A black boy selecting to live as a gratis individual on his own terms is something that is still difficult for some white folks to tolerate.Burns' movie is also remarkable for the method in which it uses current archival movie of Johnson's bouts. Using silent film, Burns and his team have added sound results such as crowd noise and the sounds of blows connecting, and it gives these scenes the visceral punch they require. Finally, the magnificent "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 contain Billy Bob Thornton, Derek Jacobi, Brian Cox, and Alan Rickman) bring the extraordinary storyline of Jack Johnson vividly to life.As an added bonus, you receive to hear James Earl Jones tell "balls". Twice.(9/10)


Ken Burns has done an nice documentary on the life of Jack Johnson -but even more nice is the storyline he says of the times in which Johnson lived. There is still racism in this country, for sure - one wants to trust that at least in most parts of the country, it is a tiny 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, named "The Ethiopian," should not go after the heavyweight game because the white warriors swore no black boy would ever have it. When he finally did receive it, Jim Jefferson, the undefeated champion, who had refused to war Johnson, was dragged out of retirement 10 years and 100 pounds soon to test to reclaim the title. He failed, and commented that in his prime, he should never have beat Johnson.In his belief system, Johnson came up vs a contemporary, Booker T. Washington, who believed that, rather than worry about segregation, blacks could build a power, education, and cash 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 could not be missed.


As the creator of a biography about Canadian heavyweight winner Tommy Burns, I can say you Unforgivable Blackness didn't say the entire storyline by portraying Tommy as a racist who had to be badgered into fighting Jack Johnson. Until Tommy Burns came along, all the heavyweight lords had been white Americans who openly drew the so-called 'colour line,' refusing to war blacks. Tommy, who fought seven African-American boxers on his method up, announced the day that he won the game that he would take on all comers, regardless of race or religion. Among another things, Tommy Burns did the following: * Break the colour line by becoming the first white champ to war 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 warrior 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 nice 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 Globe Heavyweight Winner



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