Movie Review: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself (2013)


Title: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself
Release Date: 22 May 2013
Director: Tom Bean & Luke Poling
Production Company: Joyce Entertainment | The Offices of SPECTRE
Summary/Review:

I enjoyed seeing George Plimpton’s tv appearances when I was a kid, and I read several of his books, and even saw him speak once when I was in college.  So I was delighted that the Brattle Theatre hosted a virtual screening of a documentary about Plimpton’s life.

George Plimpton was a tall, patrician-looking man from Manhattan’s Upper East Side and descended from a prominent New England family.  After World War II he founded and edited The Paris Review which became a leading literary journal publishing the top authors of the latter half of the 20th century.

And yet he is most famous for his experiments in participatory journalism, particularly in sports, where he pitched to Major League Baseball stars, played quarterback for the Detroit Lions, and served as goalkeeper for the Boston Bruins.  Outside of sports, he played a small role in a John Wayne Western, participated in a trapeze act, and played the triangle for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  His articles and books about these experiences provided an “everyman” perspective on the type of achievements that only a small number of people can do.

Plimpton’s charm and affable personality helped him find acceptance among the groups of professionals he covered as well as regular spots as a guest on talk and variety shows.  Interviewees in the movie say that Plimpton was a hard to get to know beneath his persona.  He had a love for celebrity that manifested itself in parties and literary salons, but he also hid considerable self-doubt about his own writing ability.  Plimpton was friends with the Kennedy family and traveled with Robert Kennedy on his 1968 presidential campaign.  Along with Rafer Johnson and Rosie O’Grier, he wrestled Kennedy’s assassin Sirhan Sirhan to the ground, and incident that Plimpton never wrote or spoke about publicly.

The movie shows the funny, charming side of Plimpton that made him the celebrity I remember from my childhood.  But it also peels back the public persona of someone with severe impostor’s syndrome about being among the literary luminaries of his time. His family seem to be embarrassed that Plimpton became a pitchman for various products, but it also showed his dedication to getting money to keep the Paris Review alive.

Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself is a good documentary that looks into the life of an unlikely celebrity and his times.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches by


Author: Tyler Kepner
Title: K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches
Publication Info: New York : Doubleday, [2019]
Summary/Review:

Tyler Kepner explores ten different pitches in baseball, describing how they’re thrown, how they move, and the history of how they originated and developed.  The ten pitches include standard pitches like the fastball, curveball, and slider.

But Kepner also explores pitches that only an elite cadre of pitchers can master (the knuckleball) and a pitch that only one pitcher can really handle (Mariano Rivera and the cutter).  He also explores pitches that had peaks of popularity in the past but are all but absent in the present-day game (the screwball and the splitter).  Kepner even devotes a chapter to spitballs, scuffballs, and other modifications to the ball that affect pitches and the gamesmenship of pitchers known to use them.

The book is written in an oral history style, relying on Kepner’s interviews with current and retired pitchers and coaches as well as quotes from earlier works that covered now deceased pitchers.  The book is a creative way to look at the history of baseball from the perspective of one of its most important facets.

Favorite Passages:

Every pitch is a decision. That is the beauty and the burden of the pitcher. Think there’s downtime in baseball? Tell it to the man on the mound, all alone on that dirt bull’s-eye. The catcher thinks along with him, back behind the plate, but the pitcher rules the game. Nothing happens until he answers these questions: Which pitch should I throw, where should I throw it, and why? It is an awesome responsibility.


I’ve found that most people in baseball tend to be…pretty nice. And of all the subsets of folks in the game, knuckleball pitchers might be the nicest. They are also part of the smallest group, which helps explain it. Almost all knuckleballers were rejected by the game before they could last very long. They earned their living by grabbing the wing of a butterfly and then, somehow, steering it close enough to the strike zone, again and again, to baffle the best hitters in the world.


In the 1930s, the prime of the great Giant lefty Carl Hubbell, “screwball” came to describe a specific genre of Hollywood comedies: battle of the sexes, often with a woman’s madcap antics upending a stuffy man’s world. In his book about Depression-era films, Andrew Bergman wrote that “screwball comedy,” like Hubbell’s famous pitch, was “unconventional, went in different directions and behaved in unexpected ways.”


“Have I ever told you about my agreement with the ball?” Quisenberry asked Angell, who said no. “Well, our deal is that I’m not going to throw you very hard as long as you promise to move around when you get near the plate, because I want you back. So if you do your part, we’ll get to play some more.”


After two chaotic decades or so, the spitball was banned for 1920, the same year the country went dry under Prohibition. The rule simply turned the mound into a speakeasy, with many pitchers going undercover to get the same slippery edge as their predecessors.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: When We Were Kings (1996) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: When We Were Kings
Release Date: October 25, 1996
Director: Leon Gast
Production Company: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment
Synopsis:

On October 30, 1974, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman met in a heavyweight title bout in Kinshasa, Zaire, an event nicknamed “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali, an Olympic gold medalist and heavyweight champion in the 1960s, lost three prime years of his career after he refused to be conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War.  Meanwhile, Foreman, also an Olympic gold medalist, was younger with a strong punch and a history of overpowering wins over the top boxers of the era.

Holding the fight in Zaire was a historic choice as the event became a coming-out party for post colonial Africa.  In addition to the boxing match, which was viewed on tv by a record 1 billion people worldwide, there was a concert featuring top African musicians alongside African American stars like James Brown and B.B. King.  The fight itself is delayed after Foreman injures his eye in training, allowing everyone to spend more time in Zaire.

The documentary captures a fascinating intersection of sport, culture, civil rights, and politics.  There is a great amount of archival footage from the time, including Ali in awe of flying on an airplane with a an all-Black crew for the first time. In addition to the historic film and photographs, the film includes interviews with Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Spike Lee, Malik Bowens and Thomas Hauser who also provide narration for important events.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I was flying home from Great Britain in 1998 and watched this movie on the seatback television on Virgin Atlantic. I was so engrossed that the flight attendant chastised me to turn the screen off since the plane was approaching landing.  I later rewatched it on video so I could find out what happened at the end.

What Did I Remember?:

I think I remembered it pretty well.

What Did I Forget?:

It was less about forgetting things and more that in the intervening years I’ve learned more about Ali, and some of the musical artists and interviewees in the movie so things seemed more significant.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

You don’t have to care about boxing to like this movie.  This documentary captures the feel and excitement of a major event in the history of Africa and really the first big media event that focused on African people and African descendants as the key figures.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

The lack of interviews with Ali and Foreman at the time this movie was made is a big loss. Also, most of the people they did interview were old white men which is kind of jarring with the African diaspora theme.  The movie leans in favor of Ali, which is a bit of a shame since Foreman is a very interesting figure, one who would reinvent his public persona by the time this movie was released in the 1990s.  Throughout the movie, Ali leads Zaireans in the chant of “Ali Bomaye” which means “Ali, kill him.”  One of my favorite parts of the movie is a clip where Foreman says he’d not want people to chant “Foreman Bomaye” but instead “Foreman loves Africa.”

Is It a Classic?:

Yes. This is an all-time great documentary and sports film.

Rating: ****1/2

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with W:

  1. When Harry Met Sally…
  2. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
  3. Winged Migration
  4. The Wizard of Oz
  5. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

What is your favorite movie starting with W?  What is your guess for my X movie (Hint: my “X” movie will actually start with a number and involves a submarine)?  Let me know in the comments!

Movie Review: Creed (2015) BONUS #AtoZChallenge


To complement my review of Rocky, I decided to watch and review the movie Creed for the first time.  I’ve been meaning to watch Creed since it first came out and got good reviews, but somehow five years have passed by.  So no time like the presence.

Title: Creed
Release Date: November 25, 2015
Director: Ryan Coogler
Production Company: New Line Cinema | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | Chartoff-Winkler Productions
Summary/Review:

In the movie prologue, we meet Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Alex Henderson), a preteen in juvenile detention who tends to get into fights.  Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), the widow of champion boxer Apollo Creed, visits Donnie, informing that Apollo fathered Donnie in an affair shortly before his death.  Mary Anne adopts Donnie, and we flash forward to 2015 where we see Donnie (Michael B. Jordan) is racking up wins and pesos fighting in clubs in Tijuana.  He quits his office job in Los Angeles and tries to get the trainers at Apollo’s old boxing company, but no one is willing to take him on (shades of Mickey in Rocky).

To Mary Anne’s disappointment, Donnie decides to pursue his professional boxing dreams by moving to Philadelphia.  There he begins training at Mickey’s old gym and starts dating his downstairs neighbor, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician with a progressive hearing disorder.  He approaches Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), revealing that Apollo was his father, and asking that Rocky become his trainer .  Rocky is reluctant to return to training, but Donnie is persistent and Rocky begins showing Donnie the ropes.

Another boxer at Mickey’s old gym,an undefeated light heavyweight fighter named Leo “The Lion” Sporino (Gabriel Rosado) agrees to a bout with Donnie. In a surprising upset (in-movie, not too surprising to movie viewers), Donnie knocks out Sporino. In revenge, Sporino’s team leaks to the news that Donnie is Apollo’s child.

The world light heavyweight champion, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Anthony Bellew) of Liverpool, is looking for one more bout before he begins a prison sentence on gun possession charges.  His manager agrees to allow Donnie to challenge Conlan for the light heavyweight title if he is willing to change his name to Creed, knowing that the attention that would bring to the bout will make for a huge payday.  At the same time, Rocky is diagnosed with cancer.

And so the stage is set, Donnie must prepare to fight for the title while Rocky fights for his life.  Where will their journey lead them?  The plot points in Creed are pretty similar to those of Rocky and it’s full of cliches and full-on corniness. Nevertheless it works because of Jordan and Stallone’s performances.  Their relationship develops naturally and believably and there’s just an undeniable sweetness to it. The movie also feels more authentic in depicting African-American experience than any Rocky movie, no doubt due to the direction and writing of Ryan Coogler.

Rating: ****

Documentary Movie Review: Murderball (2005) #AtoZChallenge


This is my entry for “M” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “M” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Mad Hot BallroomMan on Wire, Man With a Movie Camera, Maradona ’86March of the PenguinsMathematically AliveMiss Sharon Jones!Mysteries of the Rimet TrophyThe Myth of Garrincha and possibly My Winnipeg.

TitleMurderball
Release Date: July 22, 2005
Director: Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro
Production Company: MTV Films | Paramount Pictures | Participant Productions | A&E IndieFilms
Summary/Review:

Murderball is the original name for a team sport played by athletes with quadrapalegia that is officially known as wheelchair rugby.  Players used modified wheelchairs on a basketball court to attempt to carry or pass a ball across the goal line.  Defenders try to stop them by smashing into the ball carrier with their wheelchairs. The documentary focuses on the period of 2002-2004 when the USA men’s national wheelchair rugby team, which had been undefeated in international competitions up to that point, and their rivalry with the upstart Canadian national team.

Three subjects get special focus.  USA star Mark Zupan is a pure jock with an angry streak (there’s no shortage of testosterone in this movie) and one of the best players in the sport.  His ongoing reconciliation with his high school friend who was the driver in the truck crash that caused Zupan’s injury is an ongoing story of the movie.  Joe Soares was a key member of Team USA up through the 1996 Paralympics and then was cut from the team due to age.  With a chip on his shoulder, Soares has become the coach of Team Canada with his mission to defeat the United States.  The movie also focuses on his strained relationship with his preteen son and suffering a heart attack. Finally there is Keith Cavill who has recently suffered injury and learns about the sport while in rehabilitation.

The personal stories of the athletes, coaches, and their family members make up the better part of the movie, focusing on details of how they adapt to life without full use of their limbs (including a section on sexual activity).  The movie is built around three tense games between the USA and Canada – one at the 2002 World Championship, a 2004 Paralympics qualifying game, and concluding with their matchup in the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.  I won’t give away the results, but the games are fascinating to watch.  I actually wish there was more footage of the sport and hope to have the opportunity to see it played in person one day.

Rating: ****

Learn to Curl 🥌


Last night I attended a Learn to Curl event sponsored by the North End Curling Club at Steriti Memorial Rink in Boston. I’ve long been curious about trying curling but until this year I was only aware of curling clubs in the distant Boston suburbs that seemed to much a hassle to get to, so I was pleased to find an opportunity accessible by the MBTA.

Curling is a sport that originated five centuries ago in Scotland but is most popular as a pastime and a competitive sport in Canada.  Americans like myself are most familiar with curling from the Winter Olympics, especially after the USA Men’s team took the gold medal in 2018.

The North End Curling Club volunteers were friendly and split us into groups of 4 to learn the basics.  The most important rules we learned off the bat are 1) do not run on the ice (even if you’re sweeping, because if you need to run the stone is going fast enough), and 2) do not walk backward.  Being very protective of my noggin, I took these rules to heart.

The joke about curling is that it is not a very athletic pursuit, but it is more strenuous than it looks, or so my leg muscles are telling me today.  Basically, the process of throwing a stone is not unlike doing a bunch of lunges.  On ice.  While pushing a ~40 pound weight.

I found throwing challenging because each part of the body is doing something different all at the same time and I struggled to make sure I could remember all of them!

  • the dominant foot (in my case, the right foot)is seated in the hack which is used to give something solid to push of from.  Once you push off you drag that leg behind while trying to avoid letting your knee hit the ice which causes you to slow down and (ouch!) hurts
  • the other leg (my left) is bent at a 90 degree angle with the foot placed on top of a slider.  You have to be careful not to step on the slider while fully upright lest you slip and crack your skull. Competitive curlers actually have the slider built into the sole of their shoe.
  • the dominant hand holds the handle of the stone and the skip will instruct you whether to turn it toward 2 o’clock or 10 o’clock position depending on which direction they want the stone to curl.  Right before your release the stone you turn the handle to 12 o’clock to initiate the curl.
  • the other hand holds a stabilizer.  Competitive curlers hold their broom sticks but at our lesson we had a device made of pvc pipes.
  • your body is positioned to align itself directly toward the skip at the other end of the sheet.
  • your head is up and looking toward the skip and where you are aiming the stone even if you want to look at all your other body parts because you want to make sure they’re in the right place.

Throwing the stone was the most challenging part for me as I never got to a point where I threw with very good weight, or velocity.  To be in play, the stone must cross the hog line at the far end of the sheet which seems a long way away! I did get better over time although I’m pretty sure I’m the only one in my group who fell over while doing it.

Luckily, everyone on the team rotates through responsibilities so I only had to throw two stones each end (an end is when each team takes turns throwing all 8 of their stones akin to an inning in baseball).  If you’re not throwing, you are likely to be sweeping and sweeping is as simple and obvious as it looks.  The purpose of sweeping is to heat the ice in front of the stone to reduce friction and allow it to travel further.  The skip calls out instructions such as “sweep!,” “hard!” (to make you sweep more vigorously), and “off” (to stop sweeping).

The part I enjoyed most was taking a turn as the skip.  The skip stands by the house, the bullseye target the thrower is aiming towards, and gives instruction to their teammates. As skip I set a target for the thrower, marking it with my broom, and raise my right or left hand to indicate which direction to curl the stone. I also tell them whether the thrower should try to set up a guard stone that will block the opponent on their next turn, or a take-out stone to knock away the opponents stone already in the house.  The skip gives instructions to the sweepers and can join in sweeping once the stone crosses the hog line closest to the house.  I could also sweep to try to make the opponent’s stone go past the house once it passed the center line of the house which was deviously fun. The skip also has the responsibility of throwing the last two stones which are generally expected to be knock-out throws, which as I’ve noted was a challenge for me since I had trouble getting my stones to even cross the entire sheet, but I think my best two throws of the night were when I was the skip.

After learning the basics, we played 4 ends.  The other team won the first two ends narrowly by scores of 1-0 and 2-0.  We finally won on the 3rd end rather dramatically when one of my teammates threw the last stone (known as the hammer) and knocked several of the opponent’s stones out of the house leaving only one of our own.  We also won the final end 1-0, and thus the final score for the entire game was 3-2 to our opponents.

Curling is a lot of fun and I would like to do it again.  The big challenge is that membership in the North End Curling Club is cost prohibitive.  It makes sense since it’s expensive to rent ice time and rent the curling stones.  I think I will have to try to save up and see if I can do it next year.

The Great Baseball Card Bubble of 1987


I saw this tweet the other day and I had to laugh because it brought back memories of the time in my childhood when I was deeply invested in the baseball card collecting hobby.  I can’t remember when I started collecting baseball cards, but sometime in the early 80s my uncle gave me a large number of cards from the 1978 Topps set.  To this I added current cards from wax packs my parents would buy me, hoping to get cards of the two New York City teams and some of the big stars of the day like Reggie Jackson, Pete Rose, Tom Seaver, Mike Schmidt, Eddie Murray, George Brett, and Fernando Valenzuela.

Oddly, my baseball card hobby actually preceded my baseball fandom by several years, but by 1985 when I started following baseball intensely, my card collecting also picked up. Now I I would my money from birthdays and such at corner stores on wax packs hoping to get my favorite team (now solely the Mets), the best players of the day, and hopefully complete the set.  I started getting Baseball Cards Magazine and learned a lot about the history of baseball cards going back to the 1950s when Topps started, and even earlier cards made by no longer extant companies.  I also learned that Topps was not alone, but had competitors named Fleer and Donruss, and soon a company called Score would release a set with color photos on both sides of the card!

Baseball Cards Magazine informed me that older cards were most valuable, but there were also error cards from more recent sets that were rare and valuable.  I searched my cards, but alas, never found the rare variants. Another type of card considered valuable is the rookie card, which is the very first card issued for a particular player by any company.  Sometimes rookie cards were issued before a player even made their Major League debut, and I found I had a Mark McGwire card from when he was on the USA baseball team in 1984. The Baseball Cards Magazine price guide said my card was worth $15 (I never sold it though).

Towards the late 80s, the baseball card hobby began shifting more and more toward emphasis on collecting rookie cards.  It helped that a large number of young players began emerging as potential stars at that time.  Wally Joyner, pictured above, was the first rookie player elected to start in the All-Star Game ever in 1986, and in 1987 even more rookies made the All-Star rosters.  Soon the ads in the back of Baseball Cards Magazine were all selling lots of rookie cards by the 100s for players like Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, Will Clark, Mike Greenwell, Mark McGwire, Gregg Jeffries, Benito Santiago, Kevin Seitzer, Ruben Sierra, Cory Snyder, Danny Tartabull and of course, Wally Joyner. The hope for collectors is that by buying up lots of cards of players when they were young would make them more valuable for resale when they became Hall of Famers. The hobby became less appealing to me the more it became an investment vehicle like the stock market.

Of course, none of these players were inducted into the Hall of Fame, and most of them weren’t even superstars.  Bonds, Canseco, and McGwire were superstars but are also among the most prominent players to have their legacies tarnished by using performance enhancing drugs. I avoided buying the lots of rookie cards, although I was convinced to save up my money to buy the 1987 Topps Traded set, which had 132 cards of players traded since the original 1987 set was published and included the first cards of several “prominent rookies.” I believe I saved up $15 plus shipping & handling to get this set by mail order.  This spring when I was in a baseball card shop in Cooperstown, I saw the exact same set for sale for $10.  The lots of rookie cards that my fellow hobbyists invested in 30 years ago have similarly not appreciated in price.

These days, my son – and to a lesser extent, my daughter – has taken up an interest in baseball card collecting.  Baseball cards have come a long way, and following the innovations of that first Score set now have color photos on both sides on high-quality card stock.  Unfortunately, this means one can no longer buy a pack with pocket change at the corner store, but have to spend several dollars for a pack at a specialty shop.  Instead of a rookie card bubble, my son is drawn in by the chance of getting limited edition cards inserted into packs that have actual player autographs and swatches of game-used uniforms and equipment (which strikes me as eerily like the relics of Christian saints).  While I can’t say these cards are worth what my son is paying for them, it is nice that they are actually something unique and pleasant to look at. You can’t say that for a lot of 100 Wally Joyner rookie cards.

2019 MLB Postseason Predictions and Preferences


Well, the Major League Baseball postseason is upon us again.  I’ve defied the orthodoxy about having just one favorite team and followed my beloved New York Mets since childhood and my hometown Red Sox since moving to Boston 21 years ago.  For the first time since 2014, neither one of my favorite teams will participate in the postseason.  To add insult to injury, teams that I absolutely despise – the St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, and Atlanta Braves – will all be in the competition to add to their massive piles of pennant flags and World Series trophies so their stuck-up fans can lord it over the rest of us peasants.

My strategy in a postseason like this is to root for underdogs and teams with long droughts of winning pennants and championships.  As a Mets fan, I’m supposed to hate the Washington Nationals, but I’ve never been able to build up the enmity since the only time the two teams were both good enough to battle for the NL East title was 2015, and Mets got the better of the Nats that season.  The Nationals have consistently been a top-notch team the past decade, but have famously never won a postseason series.  Plus, I have a lot of friends in the Washington area and it would be nice for them to see their team get of the schneid.

The other National League team I’ll be rooting for is the Milwaukee Brewers.  Like the Nationals they are a franchise dating back to 1969 (they played one season in Seattle before moving to Milwaukee in 1970) and have never won a World Series.  The Brewers have one pennant flag from 1982 when the team still played in the American League.

Over in the American League, the Tampa Bay Rays are the franchise with the most futility, having won only won pennant (2008) since joining MLB in 1998.  The Oakland A’s historically have won a lot of World Series (9, with the most recent in 1989), but in recent decades they have become an underdog favorite for succeeding despite low payrolls and a decrepit stadium.  Honestly, it would be a delight to see smart, small market teams like the A’s and the Rays upset big money teams like the Yankees and Dodgers.

The remaining AL teams are the Minnesota Twins and the Houston Astros.  I have a soft spot for the Twins, a team that has won two World Series, most recently in 1991.  A Twins championship would also be a victory for a small-market team, albeit not quite the extent of an A’s, Rays, or even Brewers championship.  The Astros won their first and only World Series in 2017, so can’t really be viewed as an underdog, but they’ve put together a solid, likable team and I wouldn’t begrudge them a second championship.

Just out of a twisted curiosity, I’d love to see a World Series matchup between the Houston Astros and Milwaukee Brewers, the two teams who switched leagues, to the distress of baseball purists everywhere.  Another fun matchup would be the Washington Nationals versus the Minnesota Twins, a franchise that played as the Washington Senators until 1960.

With that said, here are my preferences and predictions:

NATIONAL LEAGUE

WILD CARD GAME

Preference: Nationals defeat Brewers
Prediction:  Brewers defeat Nationals

DIVISIONAL SERIES

Preferences: Braves defeat Cardinals, Nationals defeat Dodgers
Predictions:  Braves defeat Cardinals, Dodgers defeat Brewers

CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

Preference: Nationals defeat Braves
Prediction: Dodgers defeat Braves

AMERICAN LEAGUE

WILD CARD GAME

Preference: Rays defeat A’s
Prediction: Rays defeat A’s

DIVISIONAL SERIES

Preferences: Twins defeat Yankees, Rays defeat Astros
Predictions: Yankees defeat Twins, Astros defeat Rays

CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

Preference: Twins defeat Rays
Prediction: Astros defeat Yankees

World Series:

Preference: Nationals defeat Twins
Prediction: Astros defeat Dodgers

Previous preferences and predictions:

Movie Review: Unforgivable Blackness (2005) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “U” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Previous “U” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Unrest.

Title: Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson
Release Date: January 17, 2005
Director: Ken Burns
Production Company: WETA | Florentine Films
Summary/Review:

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

Rating: ****


2019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films, Part II

A: Amy
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
K: Kon-Tiki
L: The Last Waltz
M: Man With a Movie Camera
N: Nanook of the North
O: Obit.
P: Pelotero
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:

And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:

And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.

2019 Major League Baseball Predictions


Time begins on March 28th, when a new Major League Baseball season starts and all the teams are tied for first place (well except in the AL West where Seattle and Oakland have already played two games in Japan).

Here are my predictions for how the 2019 will come to an end.

NL East

The Phillies aggressive offseason will give them the NL East title, although the Nationals will be neck-and-neck with them over the season. The Braves will regress a little after last season’s division championship.  The Mets sadly will continue to lack the offense to support the stellar pitching. And Miami will continue to be mediocre.

Philadelphia
Washington (wild card)
Atlanta
New York
Miami

NL Central

The Cubs will reclaim the NL Central and Milwaukee will capture the wild card.  I’m honestly not sure how the rest of the division will shake out, because the Reds and Pirates have the talent to surprise, but then again the Cardinals could be better than 3rd as well.

Chicago
Milwaukee (wild card)
St. Louis
Cincinnati
Pittsburgh

NL West

The boring old Dodgers will continue to dominate, while improvements in the Padres will help them snag a distant second place.  The Rockies will regress after their 2018 Wild Card season and Arizona and San Francisco will each drop down a notch.

Los Angeles
San Diego
Colorado
Arizona
San Francisco

AL East

The Red Sox won’t win as many games as last season but neither will the Yankees.  The Rays, Blue Jays, and Orioles will each be a little bit better than 2018, but the division will still shake out in the same order.  Excepting the Orioles, this is probably the strongest division in baseball & its a shame that only 3 teams can make the postseason.

Boston
New York (wild card)
Tampa Bay (wild card)
Toronto
Baltimore

AL Central

Cleveland will once again win the AL Central, largely for lack of competition within the division.  I expect the Twins will be the only other team to finish over .500, and the remainder of the division could shake out in any order.

Cleveland
Minnesota
Chicago
Detroit
Kansas City

AL West

The Astros, like the Dodgers, will continue to make the regular season a formality.  Oakland may challenge for the Wild Card, but I don’t expect much from the rest of the division.

Houston
Oakland
Los Angeles
Seattle
Texas

WILD CARD PLAYOFFS:

Washington defeats Milwaukee
Tampa Bay defeats New York

DIVISIONAL SERIES:

Houston defeats Tampa Bay
Boston defeats Cleveland
Washington defeat Chicago
Los Angeles defeat Philadelphia

CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES:

Boston defeats Houston
Washington defeats Los Angeles

WORLD SERIES:

Somehow the Miracle Mets swoop in and win it all on the 50th anniversary of their first championship!