Monday, 3 June 2013

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

My introduction to Jack Johnson was Miles Davis' 1971 album, A Tribute To Jack Johnson, a collection of music which served as the soundtrack for Jim Jacob's documentary on the life of the great American heavy weight boxer. For Miles the project had a personal resonance. He loved boxing and was a regular at the fights and as he alludes to in his own liner notes for the album, had tremendous admiration for how Johnson lived his life, his taste for fine clothes, fast cars and faster women, and Johnson's refusal to tow the racial line set by the white establishment of 20th century America. All of which is explored in Ken Burns' superb 2004 film Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson which traces the extraordinary life of Jack Johnson, the son of former slaves, who fled Galveston, Texas to seek his fortune and battled and bludgeoned his way to became the first black heavyweight champion of the world.

In telling the story of Johnson's life the film explores the emergence of professional boxing from its earliest days when matches were strictly unregulated underground affairs to the world-famous The Fight of the Century of 1910 when former undefeated heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries came out of retirement to fight Jack Johnson. The film is also a damning indictment of systematic suppression of blacks in the post-Reconstruction America. Ultimately Johnson's toughest opponent was Jim Crow, and he had as many battles outside the ring - his struggle against the racism within the boxing world which denied him for years a shot at the heavyweight title because of his color, the poisonous racial theorizing aimed at undermining his athletic achievements, and the contempt he earned for his relationships with white women. Johnson was fiercely intelligent, highly sophisticated and for a man of his time progressively-minded, opening up a speakeasy on the South-side of Chicago which catered for blacks and whites - "I have found no better way in avoiding race prejudice" Johnson once said, "than to act with people of other races as if prejudice did not exist".

1909. Jack Johnson towers before a flattened Stanley Ketchel. Johnson hit Ketchel so hard it is said Ketchel's front teeth were found embedded in Johnson glove.

Unforgivable Blackness follows on the tradition of previous Burns films like The Civil War (1990) or Baseball (2004). Instead of the fragmented, frenetic pacing of contemporary TV documentaries (as well as the current vogue for applying three dimensional effect to photographs), Burns has a more classical meditative style, weaving together an incredible tapestry of archive photographs, personal correspondence, newspaper clippings and film footage (complete with subtle and sensitive sound effects to add additional life to the images). The film features insightful commentary from a wide range of personalities, including novelist and critic Stanley Crouch, essayist Gerald Early, Johnson biographer Randy Roberts, boxing writers Bert Sugar and W.C. Heinz, and James Earl Jones who played Jack Johnson on Broadway and film in The Great White Hope. Returning from previous Burns' films, Jazz (2001) and Mark Twain (2002) is the great Keith David who provides another fine narration, and among the excellent voice cast are Brian Cox, Ed Harris, Derek Jacobi, Amy Madigan, Joe Morton, Alan Rickman, Studs Terkel, Billy Bob Thornton, Eli Wallach, Jeffrey Wright and with great presence, Samuel L. Jackson as the voice of Jack Johnson. Wynton Marsalis provides the enjoyable ragtime score (with snatches of Blind Willie Johnson). Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson is available as a standalone 2-disc set or as part of an excellent value 10-disc American Lives boxset which rounds up a number of other Ken Burns films. Highly recommended.

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