Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson


Dir: Ken Burns

My second time through this fascinating documentary by one of America's most underappreciated film makers. His three massive, multi part films "The Civil War", "Baseball", and "Jazz" are all richly famous elucidations of Americana. And while they continue to draw huge audiences in occasional replays on PBS, I am not sure that Burns himself gets enough credit. His style of documentary is now genre defining, his subjects sprawling and important, and his influence on popular culture is among the highest of all filmmakers.

Unforgiveable Blackness is only a 3 and half hour film, so it's small by Burns' standards. His subject is Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world and source of major political scandal in the 1910's. Burns obviously understands the cultural importance of sport, and his examination of boxing's importance to the country at this time is detailed and rich. An amazing amount of printed material survives from this time, giving us in depth information and trivia about the variety of farm hands and circus giants who engaged in the sport at the time. And since showing boxing films was the primary means of revenue generation for the promoters (early pay-per-view), archival footage of many of these fights exists, some of the earliest examples of recorded motion.

Burns has taken this silent footage of Johnson's fights and subtly added sound to recreate the feeling of a modern viewing. Not ostentatious, just background crowd noise, some punching sounds, and lots of snap edits so that an image of a punch landing comes quickly at the point of impact. Still photos as well are used in this manner. The time involved in that operations must have been enormous, and the result are some truly invogorating fight scenes. The technique is brilliant, but not obtrusive. The film is worth watching just for that display of direction.

I myself am a fan o thef sport, even while acknowledging its brutality. The film offers some ruminations on this subject, how boxing appeals to the uncivilized parts in us that are nonetheless in us. But it quickly becomes apparent that boxing is not the real subject. Boxing made Johnson famous, but race made him a danger.

Johnson broke the color barrier in boxing, forty years before Jackie Robinson, when he was finally allowed to fight for the title in 1908. No non-white held the title after Johnson lost it in 1915 until Joe Louis won it in the 1937. Attempts to regain the title by whites inspired the "Great White Hope" phenomenon, a national obsession. To add insult to racist injury, Johnson flaunted his relationships with white women and his flashy lifestyle. Johnson spurned anti-miscegenation bills in Congress and was convicted of white slavery by a Justice Department obsessed with silencing the icon. The brilliance of the documentary is to spend more time on this contextualization than on the sport itself, raising Johnson's story from one of a great fighter to one of a symbol of freedom and perseverance in this nation's most troubled times.

One cannot be help but be agahst when a quote is read from the New York Times pleading for someone to knock the stupid grin off that black brute and teach him the inherent supremacy of the white race and the necessity of protecting the virture of white women. There are literally hundreds of these srots of things, from all manner of outlets, that pepper the film. That is the New York Times, less than 100 years ago. School children know a lot about Jim Crow in the 50's and 60's studying the post WWII civil rights movement. But the turn of the century is largely a mystery. Burns has illuminated the issue for me and exposed the ubiquity of shocking prejudice at the time. It is a chroncile of how far we have come, but how deep the roots were and remain.

The documentary is powerful and important. I cannot recommend it higher.