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Unforgivable Blackness [Movie Review]


Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise & Fall of Jack Johnson is a 2005 sports documentary that charted the life and career of the first Black heavyweight champion. The film explores how the rise of Jack Johnson was met with fierce resistance that led to the search for a “Great White Hope”. Directed by Ken Burns and narrated by Keith David, the movie details Johnson’s prowess in the ring and unapologetic demeanor in his personal life.


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Show Notes

John Arthur Johnson was born shortly after the end of Reconstruction in Galveston, Texas to parents who were former slaves. With many having been denied the opportunity to learn, most of the newly freed placed a high value on education. Thus his parents made sure that all six of their children got at least a basic education and could read and write. Johnson would only obtain five years of formal education but had big dreams and saw himself as being special.

Having a dream to get up and out of humble circumstances has fueled a lot of people’s quest for greatness. By the time Johnson reached his late teens, he was rather large standing at 6-feet-tall with a powerful muscular build making him a good candidate for success as a boxer. At the time, boxing was not the organized sport that it is now and was outlawed in some places. Fighters often competed in unsanctioned one-on-one fights in illegal venues. Johnson racked up several wins in this category as well as brutal free-for-alls with multiple fighters where the last person standing won prize money.

I believe in living a healthy lifestyle and as part of that am curious about what athletes eat and how they train regardless of the sport. But I would describe myself as being just a casual boxing fan, in that I’m only interested in heavyweight boxing and usually only watch fights or clips of the handful of boxing superstars that I like. With that in mind, I appreciated seeing a bit of both in the Unforgivable Blackness.

As a fan of writing that has depth, I enjoy content containing symbolism and double meanings that can be analyzed. So having the Unforgivable Blackness break down the differences in how the media covered Black and White boxers was of particular interest to me. It laid bare racism where what would then be applauded in White boxers would be denigrated in Black boxers. A variety of negative stereotypes were applied to Black boxers like Johnson and incredible feats of mental gymnastics were used to explain away his obvious skill.

When I first saw Unforgivable Blackness at the time of its release, I thought it was a cool documentary about the sport of boxing but didn’t take any interest in Johnson as a person. Watching Unforgivable Blackness again several years later with a bit more patience, I better understood Johnson’s philosophy on life and had a greater appreciation for what he symbolized.

Jack Johnson did not shuck and jive nor did he see himself as a representative or advocate for Black people. Also, as he gained fame and became financially successful, he developed a reputation for dating White women. This was a different time and while I don’t think Johnson was ashamed to be Black, he wanted the freedom to be his own person. He wanted to live life on his terms rather than within the bounds of what others considered acceptable, regardless of if they were Black or White. He didn’t deny that racism existed but dealt with prejudice by treating everyone as though he was their equal regardless of race. He chose not to be a direct advocate for the Black community but instead used his actions to disprove the ideology of White supremacy within the realm of boxing.

I think we have to make a distinction between people being part of the Black community versus the property of the Black community. Meaning that it’s perfectly fine to applaud and champion Black people who achieve great things in life. Yet as a community, we shouldn’t expect to dictate how anyone else lives their life, especially if we as individuals wouldn’t tolerate such interference in our lives.

Quite often when Black athletes and entertainers are early in their career, much of their support comes from the Black community. But some achieve a degree of popularity where they then crossover to the mainstream. They might come to regard themselves as being a great athlete or entertainer period rather than a great “Black athlete” or a great “Black entertainer”. For some, this might be a matter of feeling accepted by the White public and an attempt to put distance between themselves and other Black people. But for others, it’s a result of feeling as though they are now among the best of the best across the board rather than the dismissive “good, for a Black person”.

Though I do find it interesting that many Black athletes and entertainers who rise from poverty are initially surrounded by Black people. Yet, when they begin to achieve success many are suddenly surrounded by White promoters, managers, and romantic partners. It seems that when some Black artists and athletes reach a certain level of success, Black managers and representatives are deemed incapable of serving their interests. Not to mention, it’s only in recent decades that we’ve begun to see Black people as coaches, in the front office of sports teams, or as record label executives.

I think sometimes we judge people out of context by basing our opinion of them on our experiences and the time in which we are living. Booker T. Washington promoted an accommodationist philosophy in response to White supremacy and was probably the most famous Black man of his time. Yet, despite the expectations of the time for Black people to be deferential towards White people, Johnson refused to kowtow. The point is made that some of this is a difference in attitude between those such as Washington who had been born during slavery and those such as Johnson who was born free after emancipation. But I think it was simply a difference in opinion between two individuals as there were people in both groups whose opinions on the best way forward did not match up with the period during which they were born.

It would be easy to assume that as an athlete who participates in a brutal sport, Johnson was himself a brute. This might have been true to a degree as he definitely handled business in the ring. But, he also joked around and was described as being fairly mellow outside the ring. And despite his limited formal education, he made it a point to read and educate himself.

A glaring flaw that should indicate to anyone that White supremacy was not built on facts but rather to support a system of racial inequality is that it was easily threatened by an even playing field. If White supremacy was based on the natural order of things then it would not have needed Jim Crow, black codes, and other crutches to survive. Newspaper clippings are read where journalists perpetuate White supremacy by stating various negative stereotypes about Black boxers. But then there are all kinds of excuses as to why White boxers shouldn’t compete against Black boxers despite supposedly being superior.

Racism and racial superiority come from a place of inferiority. People as individuals range from bad to good with most falling somewhere between the two. You’re doing too much if you’re using an unequal playing field while trying to convince me of your greatness. How could a White boxer fight only other White boxers and consider himself the best if there are also Black, Hispanic, etc. boxers? Unless you’re willing to face every and any reasonable contender in your weight class, you can’t consider yourself a champion.

This speaks to the real fear that fighting Black boxers meant there was a possibility of losing and thus having a Black boxer become champion. It’s like Hitler and the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics where he built up this ridiculous propaganda about a superior race and then exhibited poor sportsmanship to keep the lie alive. In response, Johnson went easy on other Black boxers as due to the era, he had little to gain financially or with regards to notoriety by beating them.

The White press and upper echelon boxers added to the hype of Johnson facing off against top-tier White fighters by making a big show of refusing the fights. Their racist explanations for why these fights shouldn’t happen made them all the more meaningful when they finally did. Instead of letting Johnson fight whoever and people might talk about it for a day or two, they dragged things out and made the fights huge occasions that were racially significant.

It showed the ridiculousness of the media coverage and the burgeoning fight industry’s determination to prevent Johnson from fighting the White champion. Jim Jeffries, the White champ, went so far as to retire rather than fight Johnson. And then Johnson had to practically chase and goad the next White champ, Tommy Burns, into giving him a shot at the title.

The first fight between Johnson and Burns was crazy. Johnson played mind games with Burns and gave him a beating for all that jive-talking he and the press had been doing for years. And as it’s Unforgivable Blackness’ theme to point out the ridiculousness of the institution, White supremacy dictated that the knockout could not be recorded. Thus the fight and recording were stopped before Burns could be completely knocked out. The mental gymnastics that people underwent to explain away not fighting Johnson and then to explain away why Burns lost was amazing. It’s one of those things where you just have to shake your head at the ridiculousness of it all.

I’m always amazed by how scandalous people were back in the day but yet there’s this constant story about how reckless and devoid of character people are now. In learning about Johnson’s lifestyle it seemed like the boxing lifestyle of the past and sports in general, share a lot of the traits with the industry of recent years. Men from humble beginnings suddenly get large amounts of money and clothes, jewelry, fancy cars, and a starting lineup of women follow. Unfortunately, a number of these individuals end up going broke as most athletes get injured or begin to physically decline in their 30s. Yet, many live a lifestyle based on the assumption that they’ll be making the same kind of money for the rest of their lives. Ironically, playing sports requires discipline and habits that usually support health. But the lifestyle that seems to surround boxing and other sports is unhealthy with all the drinking, drugging, and womanizing.

All hell broke loose when the public learned that Johnson was traveling with a White woman. Hotels, the press, and Black people back in Galveston turned their backs on him. At this time, Black people were catching hell but Johnson had some sense of privilege because of his money and fame. In collecting things such as clothes and cars, he sought out what was deemed top tier and exclusive at the time.

After the Black woman he was seeing early in his career left him, it seems Johnson just dealt with whatever women were readily available in his sporting world. For some men, women are women regardless of their race and Johnson being such a man took advantage of the opportunity to be with White women. Given this era of White supremacy where White women were placed on a pedestal and it was forbidden for Black men to be with White women, it likely added to their perceived value. (Sidenote: Most of the women Johnson dealt with seemed to be prostitutes. It was a factor of the times but these women who were supposed to be party girls looked and dressed like schoolmarms.)

The Johnson vs. Ketchel fight was amusing. You have to be feeling yourself to take a shot at this guy that is knocking people out all over the place. Especially if he’s laughing and joking while fighting you. Picking you up and carrying you around the ring. Be smart. Stay out of his reach and try to make it through the rounds without him cleaning your clock. But I guess you have to give him an A for effort because he showed some heart in being willing to stand toe-to-toe with Johnson. I just shook my head when I saw Johnson mollywhop Ketchel and knock him out cold after Ketchel went off-script.

I liked that with each fight, the focus wasn’t just on the bout itself but rather delved into the business and broader boxing history implications. The backstory around Johnson v. Jeffries is interesting from a business standpoint. It provided some insight into how revenues were earned and royalties would be split.

That so much was riding on this fight is incredible, there probably were few if any fights like it in the entire history of boxing. I don’t have any respect for Jeffries as a person but as a fan of the discipline of athletes training, I did enjoy seeing the clips of his training camp. In a bit of irony, he might have been better off fighting Johnson years before in his prime instead of being an idiot and retiring to avoid having to fight a Black boxer.

The Johnson v. Jeffries fight lived up to the hype as it was interesting to see Johnson patiently outbox and outwit Jeffries. Johnson’s tendency to methodically and mercilessly beat White competitors should have been a warning of what to expect. The amount of racial significance attached to the fight is astounding. There was a constant refrain about the ineptitude and flaws of Black people with regards to character, intellect, athleticism, and all other areas of life. Instead of allowing free reign to prove these theories, Black people were held back and otherwise handicapped. When allowed to compete on an even playing field we showed ourselves as being more than capable. But then instead of showing good sportsmanship after having their racist theories disproven in a fair fight, supporters of white supremacy responded to the loss with hostility and violence.

It was a bit ironic that after having to push so hard to fight the world champion, who was White, Johnson then turned around and drew a color line of his own. In Johnson’s case, the decision didn’t seem to be racially motivated but rather from a business and financial standpoint. Matches between Black boxers at the time were not set up to be the money makers that they would become in later years. Thus the fights had the potential to be harder while offering a smaller payday. It remained easier (at least physically) and more profitable to fight White boxers.

In some ways, the story of Jack Johnson reminds me of the theory of the sad laughing clown. Constantly smiling while dealing with such open hostility would affect anyone. It’s a bit sad that he endured all of these hardships to become champion and was still unable to fully enjoy it. Given that we’re only just beginning to openly discuss depression, coverage of the topic within the larger Jack Johnson story was eye-opening.

Johnson’s domination of White opponents in the ring and audacity in his personal life outside the ring made a lot of people angry. And with the enactment of the Mann Act, Johnson became a target. But consider that federal agents traveled the country to gather information about him in hopes of bringing about a case that would stick. Yet, during this same period, the federal government claimed to not have jurisdiction and was somehow unable to provide resources to protect Black people from lynchings or to enforce their civil rights in the South. Also, White men had been raping and otherwise assaulting Black women for generations with no government intervention or judicial punishment.

Something else to note about the era is that it’s mentioned that Johnson was physically abusive with at least one of the women that he was seeing. It says something that he wasn’t arrested for domestic violence but was arrested for allegedly transporting these consenting women across state lines. Was this a matter of the patriarchal society not yet having laws in place to combat domestic violence? How was his dating a White woman worse than him being violent with any woman?

To a degree, I understood Johnson’s determination to continue seeing White women despite the risk. As long as the other person is an adult, why should you as a grown man have to deal with someone else telling you who you can be with? I believe that what takes place between two consenting adults is between those two consenting adults. So I don’t have an issue with Black men dating White women as long as they don’t denigrate Black women in the process.

You might ask if you’re dealing with all this trouble, why continue seeing these White women who are bringing you unwanted attention? But I think to some degree it was an act of rebellion. A desire to live as he pleased and have all the things society said he shouldn’t with regards to custom suits, custom cars, and whatever women he was attracted to. It’s sexist but some men tend to use women as human representations of their achievements akin to owning an exotic or luxury car. In telling Black men that they couldn’t have these things, those become the things that they saw as being an achievement to obtain. (And while Johnson might have been a great boxer, he didn’t sound like much of a prize as a romantic partner so Black women were likely better off not dating him.)

Johnson’s loss to Jess Willard was a tough fight to watch but there is no shame in losing a boxing match as it takes heart just to step into the ring. Any fighter regardless of how good they might be will eventually take a loss if they fight long enough and face good opponents. Not to make excuses but the scheduled number of rounds for some of these fights is crazy. What kind of training would you have to undergo to last 45 rounds in a fight? And in 105-degree weather?

Now it can be argued that he likely lost because he didn’t train well enough, had gotten older and grown comfortable in life, and his opponent was at the very least a decent if not good fighter ten years his junior. Having lost a title at the age of 37 after boxing for at least two decades especially under racially charged circumstances is something to be proud of. Johnson might have been physically beaten and frustrated by his legal troubles but was not broken. All things considered, Willard was the better fighter that day and earned his win. It’s a bit ironic that Johnson lost at 37 when he was past his prime and after not regularly boxing for a period of time much as Jeffries had lost after a six-year hiatus.

Johnson’s story would foreshadow many other fighters that came after. He earned a lot of money for the time but ended up having financial issues within a short space of being unable to fight. Though in his case it seemed to be due in part to his inability to get fights or make money doing shows as much of the Western world turned its back on him due to his legal troubles and reputation with White women. Sadly, he was rumored to be reduced to fighting for a few hundred dollars. Though I hope that eventually athletes and entertainers will learn that these big paydays might not last a lifetime and you have to put money up in case things go left. The same people glad-handing and cheering for you will be on to the next if you start losing or don’t have money to throw about.

I have nothing against Joe Louis but it says something about him and the time that for a shot at moving up the ranks and titles, he had to be the anti-Jack Johnson. To read about all these rules and regulations that he had to follow to stay in the mainstream public’s good graces was crazy. It reminded me of the book 40 Million Dollar Slaves and how so many athletes then and now are lions within their sport but then absolute kittens with the media and public. They give up their voice and tow the line in exchange for a shot at financial gain. And then when the sport/industry is done with them they get thrown to the wayside all the same.

Just as an aside, something that I didn’t understand was the boxing attire in some of the photos and videos. I get it that boxing gloves and trunks have changed over the years. But most men at that time were still wearing some kind of glove, shorts, and boots. Yet every so often some fighter would inexplicably pop up in what appeared to be a jockstrap. If one fighter is wearing shorts why is the other person boxing with both buttcheeks hanging out? Was this a shirts and skins kind of thing where it was a way to differentiate between the fighters? Was it a fighting strategy to throw the other boxer off? Either way, it was weird.

Unforgivable Blackness is a documentary about Jack Johnson but also about boxing’s early history in America as well as the racial climate of the time. Clocking in at 3 hours and 40 minutes, it’s relatively long compared to other documentaries but fairly short for a Ken Burns project. Either way, prepare yourself to settle in as it will captivate your attention from start to finish. Despite the bulk of Johnson’s story taking place during the early days of boxing, the documentary still features a wealth of black and white photographs and clips from Johnson’s personal life as well as highlight footage from fights.

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