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PBS Home Video presents
Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004)

"Even a boxer must come into contact with life and its many problems." 
- Jack Johnson

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: January 13, 2005

Stars: Keith David, Samuel L. Jackson
Other Stars: Stanley Crouch, James Earl Jones, Bert Sugar, Gerald Early, Jose Torres, Randy Roberts, Jack Newfield, W.C. Heinz, George Plimpton, Billy Bob Thornton, Ed Harris 
Director: Ken Burns

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 03h:32m:50s
Release Date: January 11, 2005
UPC: 097368874541
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-B+B C

DVD Review

The overarching theme in much of Ken Burns' documentary work is the centrality of race to the evolution of America—his extended examinations of the Civil War, jazz and baseball provide a narrative of the still uneasy relations between whites and African Americans in the United States, where they've been, and, by inference, where we are with all of this today. He seems to do this now almost reflexively—the primacy of race in a discussion of the war between the states is self-evident, for instance, but, without denigrating the enormous importance of Jackie Robinson as a pivotal figure in American history, you sometimes get the sense, in the baseball series especially, that this has become Burns' default setting, and not necessarily always the best avenue into extraordinarily complex material. But there's no fault to be found on this score with Burns' telling of the life of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world. Burns' working methods and social concerns mesh well with the unfolding of this extraordinary life, one that may be largely underappreciated today, for a number of reasons: boxing has become a marginal sport, if not a joke; sports often don't get the credit for social change that they frequently deserve; and there's a lingering sense that this story has been told already, in dramatic form, in The Great White Hope.

But Burns' efforts here are well worth it, and even if you're familiar with some aspect of Johnson's life, you're sure to find much to admire in this stately, carefully crafted look at the man and his times. Born in Galveston in 1878, the child of former slaves, Johnson saw boxing, as so many others have since, as a way out; he matured as the sport gained a growing legitimacy, no longer distasteful barroom brawls, but becoming the sweet science. Of course, like much else in America at the time, boxing was shot through with racism: John L. Sullivan, the first great heavyweight champ and a white man, refused to get in the ring with a black fighter. In many respects it was Johnson who personally and literally broke down that barrier, and his behavior out of the ring was as groundbreaking as what he did between the ropes.

For one thing, Johnson openly had sexual relationships with white women at a time when the mere suggestion of an interracial romance could be enough to get a black man lynched. Unsurprisingly, Johnson was an extraordinary physical presence, and he cut a wide swath: he loved speeding in cars and crashed more than his share, and seems to have done so much whoring, partying and drinking as to make Babe Ruth look like a teetotaler. Once Johnson became champ, white America was in open revolt, and the search to find a white boxer to defeat him, to unearth the Great White Hope, was on. (Among the many failed challengers was Victor McLaglen, who wisely gave up pugilism for Hollywood, and won an Oscar in The Informer.) The efforts of Burns and his team in unearthing footage, photographs and other documentary evidence of Johnson's life is typically extraordinary; unlike some of their other projects, though, they had a wealth of material with which to work, and they have edited the film together with panache. Some of this stuff is truly just amazing: Johnson won the title by knockout in 1908, for instance, but the footage stops just before Tommy Byrnes hit the canvas, for the feeling back in the day seems to have been that the shot of a black man knocking out a white one would be just too incendiary.

And as with many other Burns projects, this one is peppered with talking heads, providing context and insight. Among the best of them are Burns vets Stanley Crouch and Gerald Early, and Johnson biographer Randy Roberts. And certainly no self-respecting boxing documentary is complete with Bert Sugar, whose passion for the sport and for bouts fought decades before he was born is contagious. Burns pretty much avoids the dangers of overintellectualizing boxing, as well; it's a sport probably second only to baseball in attracting those who want to tart up their keen grasp of the obvious. This was a barbaric time: boxing matches were routinely scheduled for as many as 45 rounds, unthinkable today by multiples, and the strategy of one Johnson opponent was to ram his skull into Johnson's jaw as many times as possible. The first half of the project documents Johnson's rise, the second, his inevitable fall; his decline was an especially ignominious one, as a result of Mann Act prosecutions, leading to time in prison. The film is less strong toward the end in trying to draw some larger lessons or morals, though James Earl Jones is especially touching on Johnson; when he was portraying the boxer on Broadway, in the late 1960s, his biggest fan was Muhammad Ali, who came to see the play over and over again, and obviously saw affinities with his own story in Johnson's. Great credit, too, to Wynton Marsalis, for providing an excellent and evocative score; and to the team of actors who read from contemporary letters and newspaper accounts. Especially fine on this score is Samuel L. Jackson, who provides the voice of Johnson; and a very menacing Billy Bob Thornton, who becomes the voice of white racist rage and payback.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The archival footage, though extensive, is of course varied in quality, but the overall film has been assembled with care and well transferred to DVD. These are never cinematographic tour de forces, but this is a strong, solid effort.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The audio balance is excellent throughout, though on the 2.0 track, Marsalis's score may be a little too prominent; the music is fine, but when it's cranked up too high, as it occasionally is, it's a distraction from the storytelling.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 19 cues and remote access
9 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Gladiator style 2-pack
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The film is spread out over two discs, and all the extras appear on the first. A making-of piece (16m:05s) features Burns, Marsalis, and Geoffrey C. Ward, who wrote the script for the documentary and is the author of a book of the same name, a Johnson biography. What's essentially a Marsalis music video (04m:20s) intercuts music recording sessions with Johnson footage. A package (23m:34s) of nine deleted scenes seem principally to concentrate on Johnson's boxing style; it's very interesting stuff, but it doesn't propel the narrative forward. Also on hand are weblinks to PBS sites.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

A strong, involving telling of the life of one of the most charismatic and incendiary sports figures from the early part of the last century.


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