Last edited: January 23, 2005

Jack Johnson’s Painful Tale

Washington 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 black man.

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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