'Unforgivable Blackness': a multi-faceted knockout

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The narration hums like poetry. The pictures seductively pull one toward the screen and into their world - even the still photographs seem to shimmer with the hidden energy of the moments they captured decades ago. The music is organically sublime - driving everything, from rhythm to tone. It's the heartbeat of the film.

Those elements form the template for a Ken Burns' documentary, and all are present in Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, a four-hour, two-night PBS film premiering tomorrow night.

This latest offering from the creator of The Civil War and Jazz chronicles the spectacular life of the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion of the world. But it is also a meditation on race, sports, sex, masculinity, celebrity and, ultimately, the American character. The latter is the focus of virtually every film in the Burns oeuvre. The filmmaker might not be our greatest historian, but it is hard to think of another who has shown us more about ourselves through his art.

Tonight's documentary opens on grainy, black-and-white film of two young boys - one white and one black - in a rural setting, slugging it out. After a flurry of back-and-forth punches, the white boy is knocked to the ground and the words of Johnson (drawn from actual interviews and spoken by Samuel L. Jackson), can be heard: "I was the one who had set out from Galveston, Texas, not only to see the sights of the nation and to seek my fortune wherever the chances were, but also to become the undisputed champion of the world."

Dangerous insouciance

Then, the voice of the film's narrator, Keith David, takes over as the screen fills with alternating images of Johnson in the ring, moving with mesmerizing grace and power, and Johnson in expensive suits and top hats, driving early 20th-century touring and sports cars.

"By 1910, Jack Johnson, the first heavyweight champion of the world, had successfully defended his title against every white challenger, every white hope that came at him, including former champion Jim Jeffries, whom he demolished at Reno in the battle of the century. His victory had provoked race riots all over the country," the narrator says, as black-and-white photographs of Jeffries, staggering under a Johnson blow, fill the screen.

"Jack Johnson's ambition and talent and quick wits, his extraordinary financial success, fondness for fast living and refusal to follow rules set by others, had all helped make him a hero among African-Americans," the narration continues. "But most whites, who still saw the country as theirs to run, saw those same qualities, when embodied in a black man, as a dangerous threat. Still worse from their point of view, Jack Johnson didn't seem to care what they thought. For that, he would be made to pay."

That's the overture to the film, and once again, it skillfully foreshadows the story that Burns will tell over the four hours. But, as impressive as that combination of pictures and words is, there is even more going on in the all-important opening moments of Unforgivable Blackness.

Underneath the montage is a musical bed that starts with the bluesy Southern sounds of a single acoustic guitar and slowly builds instrument by instrument through Dixie and ragtime, until it becomes a full-bodied jazz ensemble playing big-city, Roaring Twenties jazz. The musical overture - composed and directed by Wynton Marsalis - also takes viewers from the 1878 Texas birth of Johnson up to his heyday and downfall in the big northern cities of Chicago and New York.

Burns maintains that level of precision in matching word, image and musical sound throughout the film. The result is an emotional and intellectual combination punch that will compel many viewers to confront their own feelings about race as they come to know Johnson as a multi-faceted, complicated man.

Conspiracy to convict

Though Johnson was clearly a victim of racism, Burns doesn't paint him as a martyr. Johnson, by his own admission, used his relationships with white women in part as a gauntlet to be thrown in the face of white America.

Nor does Burns gloss over the fact that Johnson preferred white women who were prostitutes, and that he physically abused them - especially when he was drinking.

But Burns also shows how the white establishment in 1913 conspired to convict Johnson of violating the Mann Act, which outlawed the transportation of women across state lines for the "purposes of prostitution, debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose." The government used one his former lovers to testify against him. After the verdict, Johnson fled the country and lived abroad as a fugitive until 1920 when he surrendered and went to prison.

The film delineates the ways in which racism banked the fires of every destructive ember in Johnson's character. Nowhere is the climate of racism in Johnson's time more perfectly captured than in the archival film footage from Johnson's first title fight.

Burns freeze-frames the rare footage when police rush into the ring and stop the cameras just as Johnson fells his white opponent with a mighty blow. Authorities wanted to spare white audiences - which later would see the film in theaters - the trauma of seeing a black man standing over his vanquished foe as he seizes boxing's most coveted crown.

"How far removed from my thoughts the possibility that tragedy would creep into my life," Johnson says in the film. "I do not recall these things in a boastful spirit, because some of them bring sad memories and arouse regret. But they have happened and must be told, because they are true."

No one making documentaries today is better at telling such truths than Ken Burns.

On TV

What: Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67).

When: Tomorrow and Tuesday 9 p.m.

In brief: The first African-American heavyweight champ gets the full Ken Burns treatment.

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