The son of former slaves, Jack Johnson, lived loud and large. He could afford to because he knew he was destined for big things. You thought Muhammed Ali was flamboyant, then you haven’t heard of Jack Johnson who took on Jim Crow and American racism in 1908. You can see Jack Johnson in action and hear about his life in the 3-hour 36-minute PBS home video “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” now streaming on Netflix.
Produced by David Schaye, Paul Barnes and Ken Burns, the documentary is directed by Burns and based on a 2004 book of the same name by Geoffrey C. Ward. Keith David narrates with Samuel L. Jackson as Jack Johnson’s voice. Burns won an Emmy for direction and David won for Best Voice Over Performance.
Johnson was the first black man to win the World Heavyweight championship by egging on, meeting and beating two former heavyweight champions: Canadian Tommy Burns in 1908 and American James J. Jeffries in 1910. Johnson’s decisive win over Jeffries smashed the color-line and sparked off race riots nationwide that resulted in hate crimes against blacks, including murder.
Johnson wasn’t a modest family man like Jackie Robinson. He was a strategic fighter who liked driving new cars fast and welcomed the attention of women–black and white. He married white women and that led to a prison sentence that he at first avoided by fleeing the country, but eventually served in 1920.
The documentary includes commentary by historians and writers such as George Plimpton. James Earl Jones, who played a Johnson-like character–Jack Jefferson–in the 1970 “The Great White Hope,” and in the original Broadway play appears. Besides archival footage of the infamous fight between Johnson and James J. Jeffries, the documentary includes footage of Joe Louis and Muhammed Ali.
I watched this documentary after seeing “The Royale” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Think of how far we have come because of men like Johnson who challenged the system by living life on their terms and not accepting anything less than being himself. He might have had his faults, particularly in the manner that he treated women and even others of his own race, but Johnson was a black man living a reckless life like so many other rich men.
Johnson’s wives, particularly Etta Terry Duryea, suffered under the intense scrutiny and prejudice of the times. Etta was not liked by either white women or black women and she committed suicide in 1912. Like another well-known boxer, Johnson had also been a wife beater and that added to Etta’s isolation. The documentary doesn’t gloss over their troubled relationship.
Johnson was not a role model. As a sports figure, he did break barriers and bear the weight of the resulting national chaos and lived with death threats. You can see why Jackie Robinson’s behavior was so important for baseball by seeing the effects of Johnson’s boldness on the bigoted American population. “Unforgivable Blackness” is an eye-opening reminder of the history of boxing and of Johnson. This Ken Burns documentary is currently available to stream on Netflix.