Jack Johnson’s Painful Tale
Times, January 16, 2005
By Dick Heller
Ken Burns’ latest TV documentary, “Unforgivable
Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” might be almost as painful
for some viewers as stepping into the ring with the old heavyweight champion
would have been.
The word “epic” best describes Burns’ body of work,
both in content and length. At 3½ hours, “Blackness” is practically a
short subject compared with Burns’ 18½-hour history of baseball some years
ago, but at times it seems almost as long.
Fortunately, PBS will present the program in two parts,
starting tomorrow night at 9 and continuing Tuesday at the same time. Even so,
you might want to tape it and watch in several smaller doses.
If its length is difficult to take, so is the subject
matter. Johnson, champion from 1908 to 1915, was a superb fighter who suffered
greatly from the racial prejudice rampant in the United States during that
era—thus the title of last year’s biography by Geoffrey C. Ward and
Burns’ documentary (also written by Ward).
Nonetheless, Johnson made a bad situation worse by doing
whatever he pleased in and out of the ring. He consorted with a series of
white women—mostly prostitutes—at a time when the idea of
“miscegenation” was unthinkable to most Americans. Convicted in 1913 of
violating the new Mann Act by transporting a woman across state lines for
immoral purposes, Johnson fled overseas rather than serve a yearlong sentence
at Fort Leavenworth. (After seven years abroad, he returned to do his time.)
In the ring, four bouts defined Johnson’s career. He
won the title by knocking out Tommy Burns in Australia, flattened middleweight
champion Stanley Ketchel in a meeting of superb boxers, humiliated former
champ Jim Jeffries when he came out of retirement as the “Great White
Hope” and lost the crown to hulking Jess Willard.
Boxing buffs will savor films of these fights more than
anything else in Burns’ effort. Restored so effectively that color footage
seems the only thing missing (thuds and grunts have been added), they capture
all of Johnson’s power, arrogance and flashes of humor in the ring.
In one bout, he is shown applauding an outclassed
opponent in mid-ring after the man lands an effective punch. In others, he
laughs and jokes with spectators. And when he is knocked out by Willard in
1915, he lays on the canvas apparently shielding his eyes from the noonday sun
as he is counted out.
Still photos of the knockout convinced many that Johnson
did not get up because the fight was fixed. The documentary posits that
Johnson’s arms were raised over his face because of an involuntary muscular
reaction and that he didn’t attempt to arise because, at 37, he had taken a
fearful beating from Willard and realized further combat was futile.
We do not, however, get to see Johnson winning the title
seven years earlier. When it became obvious in the 14th round that champion
Burns was about to fall, police in Sydney ordered movie cameras turned off to
spare white America the indignity of seeing a white man lose the crown to a
Burns’ usual assortment of talking heads includes actor
James Earl Jones, who portrayed a character based on Johnson in the marvelous
Broadway and Hollywood productions of “The Great White Hope.” (This, of
course, was long before Jones made his living shilling for Verizon.) Other
knowledgeable commentators include boxing historian Bert Sugar, former
middleweight champion Jose Torres and writers Gerald Early and Stanley Crouch.
Actor Samuel L. Jackson speaks Johnson’s written words effectively.
From the distance of nearly a century, it is difficult to
understand how vehemently most white people opposed any notion of equality for
blacks. In its introduction, the documentary notes, “In the eyes of many
whites, the fight between Johnson and Jeffries would decide whose country it
was—who was in charge.”
Johnson, the documentary adds, “insisted on being free,
took orders from no one, slept with whomever he pleased. To white men and some
African-Americans, he was a threat.”
For standing up to prejudice in an era when “uppity”
black men still were being lynched, Johnson deserves our respect—but his own
suspect moral code does not. Rightly or wrongly, he defied the standards of
his day. Shortly before his death at age 68 in a 1946 automobile accident, he
told a reporter, “Remember, I was a man.”
As filmmaker Burns notes, lingering antagonism toward
Johnson and his behavior prompted Joe Louis’ managers to present him as
totally unlike his predecessor when the so-called “Brown Bomber” began his
ascent to the title in the mid-1930s. Louis was docile, modest and
respectful—and never seen in the company of a white woman.
Decades after Johnson’s death, Muhammad Ali came along
to demonstrate his independence in and out of the ring in a manner that
summoned memories of Johnson but without the latter’s faults. In recent
years, Mike Tyson has shown once again that a champion’s flaws can outweigh
his skills, even as money flows into and through his hands in obscene amounts.
Jack Johnson was the century’s first great heavyweight
and the best of all, some historians still insist. Ken Burns portrays him in
all his glory and dishonor—endlessly.
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