Not to be confused with pop musician Jack Johnson, or Mos Def's rock group Black Jack Johnson, the Jack Johnson was the first, undisputed heavyweight boxing champion of the world. In 1910 Johnson beat the living crap out of Jim Jefferies and won the championship belt, thereby setting off a series of race riots that rocked the nation. And why would Johnson's victory set off such deadly riots? The answer is simple: America was a racist nation that could not deal with a black man who refused to be treated like a slave.
In his latest documentary, Ken Burns looks not only at the life and times of arguably the single most threatening black man in the history of the United States and the history of boxing. Burns paints a portrait of Johnson as a proud man who fought his way to the top against insurmountable odds, continued to hold the championship despite intense efforts to strip him of his title, and kept company with white women. This all took place in a time when boxing was considered barbaric, and efforts were made to ban the sport altogether. It was also a time when a black man could be lynched for even looking at a white woman.
Burns' film, however, is about much more than a black boxer and his penchant for white women. The esteemed documentarian does a masterful job of detailing Johnson's life and career, but in the process he also brings to light the ugly racist history of this nation. Using archival footage, old photographs, and tons of newspaper clippings, Burns paints a historical portrait of the United States that is bound to disturb. Those whose politics lean to the right, or those whose necks are particular shade of red may choose to dismiss this film as liberal propaganda. But the sad truth is that all Unforgivable Blackness does present the facts as they were.
The brilliance of Unforgivable Blackness is that it is honestly about the life and career of Jack Johnson, but in recounting that story, Burns also tells the story of this nation. It is not a pretty picture, but one filled with enough brutal honesty that it should leave every person who sees Unforgivable Blackness either angry or ashamed – or both.