Unforgivable Blackness

“Even Muhammad Ali would have agreed that Jack Johnson was the greatest heavyweight fighter in sports history,” posited Dallas’ librarian Catherine Ritchie in a review piece entitled, Some Ken Burns Moment You May Have Missed.

Ritchie noted that from 1908 to 1917, Johnson dominated boxing as few others had or would.

She said Jackson was flamboyant, defiant, and determined to live life by his own rules and African-American: a lethal combination in Jim Crow-era America.

She argued that Burns offers a compelling profile of a remarkable athlete whose “unforgivable blackness” ultimately sealed his fate, even while his abilities could not be ignored. As the director himself has said, “For years, Jack Johnson was the most famous and most notorious African-American on earth.”

She stated that Johnson’s exploits in the ring not only inspired a desperate search within the boxing establishment to find “The Great White Hope” who could defeat him but also led to scrutiny of his private life in all its notoriety.

She further noted that Johnson’s overt relationships with white women were too much for early-20th-century America to tolerate, and he was frequently charged with violating the Mann Act, prohibiting the transport of a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes”. Johnson also loved fast cars and fancy clothes—i.e., the good life—thus tossing more salt into the national wound.

“He eventually lost the heavyweight title to Jess Willard in 1915, but remained an icon to his African-American followers, as he eked out a living in later years, before dying in a 1946 automobile accident,” said Ritchie.

She added that in 1967 playwright Howard Sackler was inspired by Johnson’s story to write his award-winning work The Great White Hope, which introduced audiences to James Earl Jones as Johnson, on both stage and screen.

Ritchie concluded that it is a fascinating film, as both a sports chronicle and an important slice of early-American social history.

Nigel Belle, Readers Bureau, Contributor

Edited by Jesus Chan

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