Thursday, March 31, 2016

A review of “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson”



One of the most important figures in black history was a civil rights leader named W. E. B. Du Bois. He was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and had the duty of editing their monthly magazine, which was a publication entitled "The Crisis."


W. E. B. Du Bois

He wrote in "The Crisis" once in 1914 about an African-American boxer named Jack Johnson, who was the first person of this background to become boxing's "Heavyweight Champion of the World." Here is the quote that the title of this Ken Burns film comes from:


W. E. B. Du Bois

"Boxing has fallen into disfavor ... The reason is clear: Jack Johnson ... has out-sparred an Irishman. He did it with little brutality, the utmost fairness and great good nature. He did not 'knock' his opponent senseless ... Neither he nor his race invented prize fighting or particularly like it. Why then this thrill of national disgust? Because Johnson is black. Of course some pretend to object to Johnson's character. But we have yet to hear, in the case of White America, that marital troubles have disqualified prize fighters or ball players or even statesmen. It comes down, then, after all to this unforgivable blackness." - W. E. B. Du Bois, in "The Crisis" (1914), with emphasis added


Jack Johnson

With the background established for the title of this film - which is easy to misconstrue, when taken out of context - I will now launch into my review of this film, and talk about this important person from the history of Black America.


I have had a love-hate relationship with this film, since I first saw it some years ago. There are a lot of things about it I like, and a lot of things about it I don't like; although I should make clear that the weaknesses I see in this film are not the fault of the filmmaker, for this film is exquisitely made and carefully crafted. Rather, they are the inevitable result of choosing such a controversial person for its topic. Jack Johnson is something like a Shakespearean character, in that there is much about him to admire, and much about him to abhor - he is a complex person who has much more to him than meets the eye. I will neither wholly condemn him nor wholly praise him; but offer a substantial portion of both, in this evaluation of both him and this remarkable film about his life.


Jack Johnson as World Heavyweight Champion - Canada, 1909

First, some things about this film that I liked: Whatever else the story is, it is certainly an interesting one - although sports history doesn't often get much respect from the "serious" academic historians, it is as dramatic as any other competitive enterprise, even without the complicated politics of race relations and the other issues discussed in this film. I've never been a fan of boxing, and agree with one of the film's commentators that it is basically "legalized assault"; but I will say one thing for it, which is that it is extremely dramatic to watch - a knockout punch is a lot more dramatic than a touchdown or a home run; and (if anything) may be too dramatic. The senseless violence of this sport has always turned me off, as I'd rather watch a baseball game than watch guys punch each other's lights out for no good reason; but there are apt comparisons between the boxers of today and the gladiators of Ancient Rome - comparisons that the documentary itself points out in its storytelling.


Jack Johnson's fight with Jim Jeffries, 1910

Some other interesting things about this film - Jack Johnson's story took place entirely in the photography era, so there are lots of pictures of the topic available to tell the story. Some of Mr. Johnson's fights were even filmed with the new technology of motion pictures; which helps to bring some of his most important moments to life. (It's true that the footage is silent, I should add; but a good sound studio helped to re-enact this part of the story; allowing us to hear sounds of everything from the crowds in the background, to the knockout punches seen in the foreground - which are dramatic enough even without the sound.) The musical score is also excellent, with everything from the actual music of the period (sometimes with scratchy old recordings made in the time), to the haunting refrain of Wynton Marsalis's "What Have You Done?" (recorded for the film). And for the "words" part of the story, there is Keith David doing the very capable narration, and Samuel L. Jackson as the voice of the film's star, Jack Johnson himself. Like the Geoffrey C. Ward book that the film is based on, the film benefits much from the autobiography that Jack Johnson himself wrote later in his life - an autobiography which did not sell, I should note here, but which did help to improve his image in the popular media.


Johnson fight in Havana, Cuba - 1915

So why did his image need improvement, you might be wondering? Part of it is undoubtedly the prejudice against his color; which was exacerbated by both his success (which the white people of that time so resented), and by his intimate relations (and even marriages) with white women - something that was risky enough at that time, that it could have gotten him killed (and almost did at times). I'm sure that part of the reason that Ken Burns wanted to do this film was that his victories against the white champions were enough to cause actual race riots (caused by angry whites infuriated at blacks), which is a testament to how seriously the country took both the sports in which these victories happened, and the system of institutional racism that was so ingrained and entrenched into the society of that time. The story is certainly an important one, and my criticisms of the film do not come from that.


Jack Johnson portrait

The more important criticisms come from the other parts of the subject's personal life, which go beyond the wanton promiscuity so often found in the world of sports, to domestic violence and physical abuse against the women that he dated (who were quite considerable in number). Johnson was married three times, and one of those three wives divorced him on an uncontested charge of infidelity - which, when added to the other things, did not help his image in the popular media, nor help him to be an ambassador for his then-unpopular (and severely oppressed) race. Black America could have used a much better spokesman; and Jack Johnson may have exacerbated the negative way that his race was then viewed by whites, thus causing more problems for a people already beset by serious discrimination and popular prejudice.


Jack Johnson

Because of the unsympathetic personal life of Mr. Johnson, this is not a film that I have returned to since I first watched it some years ago (other than to hear the excellent musical score by Wynton Marsalis, in the opening few minutes of the film). It's a well-made film with an important subject, but it's not one that I can stomach for long because of Jack Johnson's personal life. The frank discussions of his sexual life alone may warrant some strong cautions about this film, and the senseless (and often intense) violence may add another reason for parents to be very cautious about showing this film to their children (or even watching it themselves, for that matter). I won't recommend to any adults that they don't watch this film - not necessarily, at least - but some cautious are definitely warranted here about the nature of the content. (It was a good film for me to watch once, but I wouldn't want to return to it again.)


DVD at Amazon

Other posts about black history:

Frederick Douglass: The forgotten antislavery leader

Dred Scott: The most infamous decision in Supreme Court history

When moderation and compromise are inappropriate



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