Title: Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson
Release Date: January 17, 2005
Director: Ken Burns
Production Company: WETA | Florentine Films
This is the longest documentary I watched for this year’s A to Z series. Generally, I would find it difficult to interest myself in nearly 4 hours about boxing, but Jack Johnson’s life is a fascinating story that could fill an entire mini-series. Johnson, a heavyweight boxer in the early 20th century, broke the color barrier as the first black heavyweight boxing champion. He became America’s first black sports star, and one of the nation’s earliest black celebrities. His affinity towards finely tailored suits, fast cars, drinking, gambling, and enjoying the company of multiple women (especially white women) also made him a controversial figure at a time when black men were expected to be subservient.
Johnson worked his way up the ranks in heavyweight boxing, defeating black and white opponents until it was clear he was one of the best boxers in the world by the early 1900s. The heavyweight boxing champions had traditionally set a color line refusing to fight black challengers, and the current champion James Jeffries continued that practice. Instead, Jeffries simply retired as champion in 1905. Finally, in 1908, an Australian promoter was able to provide a big enough payday to the new champion Tommy Burns to convince him to fight Johnson. The fight was a mismatch, and Johnson easily took the title.
Over the next few years, the white boxing community put up several “White Hopes” to challenge Johnson, but Johnson was able to retain the title. Finally, Jeffries was convinced to come out of retirement to challenge Johnson in 1910 for the “Fight of the Century” in Reno, Nevada. Johnson once again dominated, and in the wake of the fight race riots broke out in cities across the country.
All of the above is detailed in Part 1 of the movie called “Rise,” while the aftermath of the 1910 title defense begins the “Fall” part of Johnson’s life story, although that’s a somewhat simplistic division. Like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson would be in the future, Jack Johnson was much more than his fists, but a man with complex interests and interior life. He played the bass and enjoyed automobile racing. Born after the abolition of slavery, he never felt the need to behave himself any other way than the way he was, thus displaying his outsized personality. And – most scandalous for the time – he dated and married white women, at times traveling with a coterie of several women. When asked why white women were attracted to black men, Johnson mysteriously and poetically responded “We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts.”
In 1912, Johnson’s wife Etta Terry Duryea, her depression accelerated by loneliness and Johnson’s infidelity, committed suicide. Later the same year, the government used Johnson’s relationships with prostitutes to charge him under the Mann Act for transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes, a law never intended to target individuals in consensual relationships. After an all-white jury convicted Johnson in 1913, he decided to flee the country while waiting on the appeal and spent several years in exile. Johnson continued to defend his title while abroad, until a 1915 bout against Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba. Ten years older than his opponent and tired by the intense heat of the outdoor bout, Johnson was knocked out.
Johnson returned to the US in 1920 and surrendered to the authorities, serving a one year sentence in Leavenworth Penitentiary. He continued fighting up into the 1940s, although generally in exhibition matches, in order to make money. Johnson offered his assistance to Joe Louis when the latter was contending for the heavyweight champion in the 1930s, but was disappointed when Louis and his manager rebuffed him. Johnson’s flashy lifestyle made him persona non grata as Louis was trying to portray himself as a “respectable” black athlete. Jack Johnson, a man who lived a fast life, tragically died in a car crash in 1946.
What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:
This movie is an entry into race relations in early 20th century United States history. It’s amazing that someone like Jack Johnson could’ve existed at that time considering the virulent racism, strict segregation, and risk of lynching. Johnson certainly suffered a lot from a racist system, but it is amazing that he suceeded as much as he did, and did it with a smile. That he was hated by white Americans was not a surprise, but the fact that black Americans also condemned him for his personal life as much as they did was unexpected.
If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:
Another one of my favorite documentaries is also about boxing. When We Were Kings is the story of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s championship bout in Zaire in 1974 and uses boxing as an entry into bigger issues of race, colonialism, and celebrity. Last year, I watched No-No: A Dockumnetary about Major League Baseball pitcher Dock Ellis, a pioneering black athlete similar to Jack Johnson in that he did not hide his personality and was criticized and condemned for it.
Source: Amazon Prime
2019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films, Part II
B: Being Elmo
C: Central Park Five
D: Dear Mr. Watterson
E: The Endless Summer
F: F for Fake
G: Grey Gardens
H: High School
I: Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice
J: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
L: The Last Waltz
M: Man With a Movie Camera
N: Nanook of the North
Q: Quest: A Portrait of an American Family
R: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
S: Soundtrack for a Revolution
T: Titicut Follies
If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:
- 2016: A journey through my neighborhood of Jamaica Plain in Boston.
- 2017: A spontaneous photograph each day.
- 2018: Watched and reviewed documentary movies.
And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:
- Book Reviews
- Movie Reviews
- Beer Reviews
- Music Reviews and Writing
- City Stories, expository writing about my experiences in various cities
And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.