Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, drove like he lived: At the height of luxury, way too fast, and with a total disregard for the laws and regulations that governed the actions of mere mortals. It's somehow fitting that he died in a car accident, but as Ken Burns' funny, brash, and ultimately touching two-part Johnson biography Unforgivable Blackness so beautifully illustrates, he fit a lot of living into his 68 years. At the turn of the century, when African-Americans were expected to scrape, bow, and plead for whatever concessions white society would grant them, Johnson demanded to be treated as nothing less than the champion he was. In the process, he alienated and enraged not just white society, but also middle-class African-Americans put off by his flashiness, arrogance, conspicuous consumption, and insatiable appetite for white women.
Born in Galveston, Texas in 1878, Johnson steadily made his way up the hardscrabble fighting ranks, but was stymied in his bid for the top spot by a string of heavyweight champions who refused to fight black opponents. Johnson tried to bait top white fighters into taking him on, but ultimately, the path to his historic successful title bid was paved by the promise of a huge payday for everyone involved. As Burns' masterful documentary shows, Johnson's championship fights transcended the rough-and-tumble world of boxing: They became cultural referendums on the state of black progress, and on whether a country that felt little need to conceal its overt racism would recognize a black champion. Yet even as he basked in fame, wealth, and notoriety, the seeds of his downfall had already been sown.
As Unforgivable Blackness' delightfully colorful commentators note, Johnson represented the embodiment of the anachronistic notion of "The Sport," a hard-living, slick-looking dandy who drove the flashiest cars, wore the sharpest clothes, and knew his way around both a haberdashery and a whorehouse. During a period in which President Wilson hailed D.W. Griffith's manifesto The Birth Of A Nation as "history written with lightning," Johnson was too black and too strong for white America. But what really infuriated Johnson's enemies was his oversized harem of wives, mistresses, and prostitutes, many of whom were white. Johnson was eventually convicted under the Mann Act, which was designed to prevent white slavery, but was instead used to punish Johnson for miscegenation. Rather than serve his sentence, Johnson fled the country and entered an unhappy period of exile before ultimately returning home.
Unforgivable Blackness is symmetrically halved, with one segment documenting Johnson's rise, and the other his fall. Not surprisingly, the rise is exponentially more funBurns vividly recreates a nighttime world of flashy clothes, comical mustaches, dens of iniquity, pasty-faced opponents with hopeful nicknames, and vaudeville houses where Johnson picked up extra cash. A voracious reader with a sharp, irreverent sense of humor, Johnson created the blueprint for all the tortured, brilliant champions that followed, right down to his eventual devolution into a bloated caricature of himself. Johnson was a magnificent physical specimen who loved the camera, and it loved him right back; Burns makes terrific use of silent footage of Johnson's fights. The government's persecution of Johnson, the damage racism inflicted on his life and career, and his tumultuous romantic history all give Unforgivable Blackness a distinctly tragic air, but the film ends on an upbeat note. All Johnson ever wanted to do was to live as a free man, and that's something he accomplished, even while behind bars.