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Photograph by Chicago Historical Society

Grand Scale: Fighter Jack Johnson pursued life with a gusto that was in stark contrast to the role of blacks in American society in the early 1900s.

The Great Black Hope

Ken Burns' new documentary about boxer Jack Johnson tries to reconcile liberal ideals with American racism

By Geoffrey Dunn

NO OTHER figure in the annals of American sports—not Jackie Robinson or Muhammad Ali or, certainly, Mike Tyson (though taken cumulatively we are getting close)—would claim center stage in mainstream American society as did the legendary boxer Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world.

Johnson rose in the ranks during the height of Jim Crow America, a period in our nation's history when "separate and unequal" was the law of the land, a time when virtually every aspect of our social order was defined by racial segregation, and blacks were expected to "know their place." It was an era when scores and even hundreds of black Americans were lynched annually in this nation, often for the crime of merely looking at a white woman—"strange fruit," as they were memorialized in the legendary Billie Holiday song.

While Robinson and Ali rose to their glories with the rising tide of the post-World War II civil rights movement in the United States and, as such, came to define and symbolize that era, Johnson's ascendancy was an absolute contradiction to his times. He was a bold anachronism, resolute and unyielding, standing in stark and utter contrast to the era in which he lived. And live Johnson did. His is truly one of the great stories in our country's history, and it will be celebrated on national television with the release of yet another Ken Burns PBS documentary epic, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.

This is not the first time, of course, that Johnson's life has risen to national prominence. During the late 1960s, James Earl Jones starred in the Broadway hit The Great White Hope and later in an admirable film version. And there have been several biographies, most noteworthy among them Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes (1983) by Randy Roberts.

Now Johnson's life will be getting the full Burns treatment and marketing onslaught. There is a corresponding biography out by Geoffrey Ward (see Metro, Nov. 3, 2004) and an accompanying soundtrack by Wynton Marsalis (Blue Note), both with the title of Unforgivable Blackness. And there is an HBO biopic in production at this very moment. But it will be Burns' four-hour-plus treatment of Johnson that, for both better and for worse, defines his place in American history for generations to come.

Mass Docs

Before he died two years ago, the historian Stephen Ambrose declared that "more Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source." Since he burst into the national limelight in 1990 with his breakthrough series on the Civil War, Burns has become a mainstay, indeed an institution, on PBS, and there would seem to be no stop to that in sight. General Motors has funded his work for most of the next decade, and there are several more documentary epochs on the horizon.

Burns followed The Civil War with two major series, Baseball and Jazz, and a number of shorter works, including documentaries on Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Frank Lloyd Wright. At the center of this collective oeuvre has been a fascination with the issue of race (particularly in respect to African Americans) and its juxtaposition to the American Dream. Unforgivable Blackness provides no exception.

First, let me give Burns his due—and he is due a great deal. Burns has forged a style of documentary construction that has been accessible to the masses (The Civil War drew an unprecedented 45 million viewers), and he has forced white middle-class America (that is his primary audience) to confront the darker chapters in our nation's history (pun intended). Using a strong narrative line (the "voice of God" in documentary jargon), Burns has developed a style that makes superb use of still photographs and archival footage in bringing historical figures and events to life. His works are perfectly crafted, with careful attention paid to lighting, camera angle and movement, sound, pacing and story line. At his best, say in his Gettysburg segment in The Civil War, Burns makes distant moments come to life with an intimacy and vitality that few other documentary filmmakers have equaled.

He applies his many talents again to no small degree in Unforgivable Blackness, though, for a variety of reasons, I think, this is not among his strongest films. And many of the larger thematic problems in his other documentaries are also at work here.

Using his staple combination of talking heads and archival photographs and footage, Burns follows Johnson's life from his birth (in 1878) and childhood in the waterfront port of Galveston, Texas, into his early years as a boxer in pursuit of the heavyweight championship. With fascinating archival footage, he chronicles Johnson's celebrated bouts with the likes of Tommy Burns (from whom he won the crown in 1909), Jim Jeffries (whom he beat on July Fourth, 1910), and Jess Willard (to whom he lost the title in 1915). He also documents in great detail his battles with mainstream American over the white women he slept with (he was imprisoned for a year in violation of the Mann Act) and how he chose to live his life in constant conflict with white supremacy.

It is a story with a tragic arc from beginning to end—Johnson was killed in a car crash in 1946 at the age of 68, driving his flashy Lincoln Zephyr into a telephone pole, apparently after being angered by having to eat in the back of a whites-only diner. Ironically, it was a year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, an irony that Burns somewhat surprisingly fails to note.

It is interesting to compare Burns' film with Ward's biography, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award last year. In his book, Ward (who also wrote the narration for the film) notes that he has chosen to include all of the terms used to describe Johnson in the popular press of the day: "'dinge,' the 'coon,' the 'big smoke,' the 'Ethiopian,' ... and more often than one can credit—simply 'the nigger.'"

It is absolutely astonishing to read how often these terms were used throughout Johnson's career. The film tempers this language somewhat (though not entirely), and while it is understandable for Burns to have done so for a national, prime-time television audience, it nevertheless takes away from the hard-edged realism contained in Ward's superb biography. As such, the film provides something of a watered-down version of American racism.

Reconciliation

Burns has always had a large cadre of critics celebrating his work. Newsweek called The Civil War a "documentary masterpiece." Given the bland and troubling fare on both commercial and public broadcast television these days, that should come as little surprise. The problem is that few television critics are schooled in the nuances of American history or theories of racism.

In the aftermath of The Civil War, for instance, several historians took Burns to task for his portrayal of Southern slavery (or his lack thereof) and his glossing over of Reconstruction (see Robert Brent Toplin, ed., Ken Burns' The Civil War: Historians Respond).

As Civil War historian Eric Foner has noted, "Two understandings of how the Civil War should be remembered collided in post-bellum America. One was the 'emancipationist' vision hinted at by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address when he spoke of the war as bringing a rebirth of the Republic in the name of freedom and equality. The other was a 'reconciliationist' memory that emphasized what the two sides shared in common, particularly the valor of individual soldiers, and suppressed thoughts of the war's causes and the unfinished legacy of Emancipation."

Burns has a decidedly "reconciliationist" view of American history. This view, of course, dominated his documentary construction in The Civil War, and it carried through in Baseball, Jazz and, I would argue, most shamelessly in Jefferson. Throughout these works, emancipation triumphs over slavery, integration over segregation, civil rights over racial injustice. Though fueled by liberal sentiments, it is a decidedly triumphant—and politically conservative—view of the American historical landscape.

In the life of Jack Johnson, Burns has met his match. There was not a reconciliationist bone in Johnson's body. He saw through the hypocrisy of American democratic ideals and never acceded to any of their myths. He refused to live the lie. That is why Burns has such a difficult time concluding his film. He makes a few flat-footed attempts at linking Johnson's life with Muhammad Ali's (Ali was a fan of The Great White Hope and saw the many parallels between Johnson's life and his), and finally relies on neocon cultural critic Stanley Crouch to put Johnson's life in perspective.

"[Johnson's] the kind of person who could have only come about in the United States," Crouch intones. "Because America, for whatever its problems, still has a certain kind of elasticity and a certain latitude that allows the person to dream a big enough dream that can be achieved if the person is as big as the dream." Fade to black.

Such a conclusion may work well for Burns' funders at General Motors, but it does a powerful disservice to the memory of Jack Johnson. There was no such elasticity nor latitude in white America's response to Jack Johnson. Ever. He became the man he was and lived the life he led not because of America, but in spite of it.


'Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson' airs Jan. 17-18 at 9pm on KQED. Geoffrey Dunn teaches Film and Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz.


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From the January 12-18, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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