Not since Ken Burn's classic epic documentary The Civil War (1990) has Burns lit upon a topic so powerful, so heroic, so tragic, as Unforgivable Blackness (2004), with some of the greatest pictorial documentation imaginable, rendering all of it a marvel to behold.
Jack Johnson was the Mohammed Ali of his day (the early 1900s), the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world. On two discs & exceeding three hours, there's never a sense that this could've been shorter. The life of Jack Johnson ranges from awe-inspiring to angeringly unjust, from towering heroic stature to doomful & broken.
Vintage newsreel fight footage gives us a complete understanding of Johnson's charisma in the ring. The out-of-ring family & news photography assures us that the charisma never waned in any environment.
The narration is thoroughly aware of the role racism played in Johnson's rise & certainly his fall, but the factual material & not the politics carries the film. Johnson's attempt, successful for a while, to live his life as flamboyantly & free as humanly possible, is scarcely outdone by today's rap artists, but even bolder still for arising in an era when it could get a man lynched.
Unlike such greats as Jackie Robinson & Joe Lewis who projected the "ideal" black men palatable to racist America, Jack Johnson was "bad" & conveyed black power decades before black power was named.
His unwillingness to compromise would bring him fame then contribute to his undoing. He was forgiven his flamboyance, his egoism, even his ability to box any white man into submission. But when he married a white woman, he'd be made a public example by the courts, & end up having to flee the country or lose his freedom.
By no means a perfect man in either his private or public life, Jack Johnson was a daring great figure just the same, a spectacular athlete who slugged his way across race barriers, & a photogenic beauty captured so often in photos & newsreels that a new film documentary had no chance of being anything less than spectacular viewing.
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