Jack Johnson’s smile drove white people mad. Drove them absolutely out of their racist minds. A brash, towering African-American whose flashy tailor-made suits, uninhibited carousing, and predilection for white women made him public enemy number one in Jim Crow’s America, the poor Southerner became the first black man to ever win the heavyweight boxing championship on July 4, 1910. In Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, filmmaker Ken Burns meticulously details how Johnson’s prowess in the ring made him a sports star, and how his unrepentant individualism and disdain for society’s demands that he be a subservient second-class citizen made him the prime target of white America’s burning racial hatred. Yet in the glowing black-and-white photos of a shirtless Johnson flexing his ripped physique in boxing poses, and in outstanding fight footage of Johnson’s championship bouts against “great white hopes” Jim Jeffries and Tommy Burns, one can sense that what America primarily couldn’t stand was the image of this formidable figure—“aboriginal” (as Stanley Crouch puts it) in his cobalt blackness—grinning that giant gold-toothed smile on the front page of their newspapers. This man didn’t just want to pummel white fighters; he wanted everyone to know he was enjoying it.
Though James Earl Jones (who portrayed Johnson in the stage and screen versions of “The Great White Hope”) says that Johnson’s story was one “of hubris more than about race,” what Burns convincingly elucidates is the way in which white America, fearful of the implications of a black man owning the lofty title of Heavyweight Champion—and therefore the de facto designation as “strongest man in the world”—sought to deny Johnson his shot at the title and, once he had seized it, plotted to destroy him by any means necessary. As in his previous documentaries, Burns mixes archival photos and newsreel footage with interviews (with Crouch, Jones, boxing historian Bert Sugar, and biographer Randy Roberts), straightforward narration (by Keith David), and a host of actors (among them Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and Alan Rickman) affecting accents while reading quotes from various players in this historical drama. It’s a sturdy formula that makes up for a lack of imagination and inventiveness with chronological clarity, and unlike in his sprawling The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz, here Burns’s focus benefits from tackling a more specific, manageable subject. Though still a tad bloated at 210 minutes, his film generally moves with an efficient nimbleness befitting the story of a man defined by his ability to effortlessly bob and weave through life’s obstacles.
Deemed “profligate, arrogant, immoral” by the national media, Johnson was a fearsome fighter who man-handled opponents as if they were children in need of a spanking, and Burns’s knockout blow is including awe-inspiring footage of Johnson—especially during his famous bouts against white champions Burns and Jeffries—literally grinning and talking to ringside onlookers (including his wife) while distractedly toying with his adversaries. Crouch likens the Johnson-Jeffries “Fight of the Century” to the Battle of Gettysburg, and “Jeffries, like the Confederates, should have been walking the other way.” An educated man of large appetites and larger ambitions, Johnson flaunted his wealth and recklessly ignored social norms because he refused to deny his equality to his fellow men, white or black. Burns, whose film is stodgily divided into two parts (“Rise” and “Fall”), contextualizes Johnson’s achievements via the public and press’s openly prejudiced reactions, culminating in the depressingly disgusting moment in which Johnson—just about to knock out heavyweight champ Burns—is denied landing the final blow by a referee determined to spare white America the incontrovertible image of a black man felling his white inferior.
One frequently wishes Burns’s lackadaisical film would, like Johnson’s custom-made sports cars, kick into high gear during the film’s more somber second half. Still, the director’s reportorial thoroughness illustrates how, having bested every contender in the land, Johnson was undone by the federal government’s underhanded attempts to destroy him for dating fair-skinned women. Miscegenation eventually becomes Johnson’s ultimate crime, with both whites (and some black women) revolting against the champ’s brazen disregard for public opinion, and Burns forcefully presents the attack on Johnson’s love life as the natural response of an intolerant country determined to destroy this “lowly” black man—a rebel, an iconoclast, a lover, a boozer, a bruiser, a womanizing abuser, and an unapologetic wild one—for dispelling the notion of white athletic superiority. Johnson was eventually disgraced and ruined, forced by the federal government to flee the country that had made him a star, but Burns’s stirring film is ultimately a tragedy about the nation, not the man. For despite an unfitting, ignominious end, Unforgivable Blackness also proves that, no matter what punches were thrown at him, no one ever wiped that triumphant smile off of Jack Johnson’s face.