Last edited: January 23, 2005

Jack Johnson Film Goes a Round Against Racism

Boston Herald, January 16, 2005

By Christopher Cox/ TV

He had the bling, the ride and the trash talk, and light years before ESPN, heavyweight champion Jack Johnson could back it all up.

But the Baddest Man on the Planet had an intractable problem. In 1910, the sporting world didn’t cotton to BWB—boxing while black. And white America didn’t abide Johnson’s unapologetic lifestyle: the gold-tipped walking cane, the red roadsters or the string of blond women.

The brash boxer’s life and times get the Ken Burns treatment in a new, four-hour documentary, “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” which WGBH-TV (Ch. 2) will broadcast in two parts, tomorrow and Tuesday evening.

“He was without question the best heavyweight of all time,” said W.C. “Bill” Heinz, 89, of Dorset, Vt., the dean of American sportswriters. “He could do so many things. He was a great feigner. He picked off punches in mid-air and threw counterpunches.”

When the former Galveston longshoreman beat Tommy Burns to become the first black heavyweight champ, white America seemed in a near-panic.

“The White Man must be rescued,” wrote Jack London.

That Great White Hope was Jim Jeffries, who came out of a five-year retirement to face Johnson. One historian dubbed the July 4, 1910, fight, “the first great media morality play.”

Jeffries was knocked out in the 15th round; Johnson soon fell harder when authorities convicted him on bogus morals charges. He jumped bail and fled to Europe. In 1915, he lost to Jess Willard in a controversial KO in Havana.

It would be 22 years before another African-American heavyweight, the modest Joe Louis, could fight for the belt.

Louis’ 1938 bout with German Max Schmeling was an even greater morality play. With Europe on the eve of war, Louis became the Great American Hope against Hitler and the forces of fascism.

In a furious two-minute assault, Louis knocked down Schmeling three times before the fight was stopped. For one round, at least, America was color-blind.

“There were so many different cultural, patriotic and nationalist themes cutting across the black-white conflict,” said Boston College sociology professor Michael Malec, “but Louis helped to ameliorate the need for a Great White Hope.”

Johnson died in a 1946 car crash. He never lived to see Jackie Robinson integrate major-league baseball or witness his spiritual successor, Muhammad Ali, ridicule and destroy opponents—and also enrage the establishment.

Today, the fight game no longer needs a Great White Hope.

“We’re beyond that,” said Foxwoods vice president Tom Cantone, who books all the Connecticut casino’s fights. “It’s the quality of participants, their records, the kind of reputations they bring into the ring on fight night.”

Still there is a public fascination whenever a Gerry Cooney, Tommy Morrison or Vitali Klitschko becomes a contender.

“The difference now is it’s not necessarily coming from social impact as much as marketing and entertainment value,” said Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. “Some people suggest they got the shot they did because it made for great TV, not because they deserved it.”

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