Under a blazing Cuban sun with the mercury registering 105 degrees, a mostly hostile, mostly white crowd of 20,000 leaned forward in anticipation in the 26th round. The latest great white hope, Jess Willard, landed a succession of four blows; to the mat went his opponent, Jack Johnson, heavyweight champ, the most visible black man in the world.
A gambling man, Johnson knew the odds, knew the battering he’d taken, the teeth he’d swallowed to save some bit of his pride; he didn’t even try to get back to his feet. At the count of 10, Willard’s fans broke out hundreds of white flags in jubilation. An era ended on that afternoon in 1915.
But in a sense, Johnson spent the rest of his life trying to get back up, to be the star again — or, at least, remind the world of the star that he’d been. He floated the story that he’d taken a dive in a fixed fight. He tried to spar his way back to the top. He ran a Harlem nightspot, played vaudeville and wrote an autobiography — though his general trajectory was downward — and he finished his days as a sort of living exhibition in Hubert’s Museum and Flea Circus near Times Square.
Since his death in 1946 in the last of his many car crashes, there’ve been plenty of others to raise the memory of Johnson off the mat. James Earl Jones conquered Broadway in 1968 as Jack Jefferson in The Great White Hope, a recasting of Johnson’s story for the ’60s. The autobiographical Jack Johnson is a Dandy was returned to print, while Miles Davis recorded A Tribute to Jack Johnson, and Muhammad Ali gave props to Johnson as a sort of kindred soul tangling with the establishment.
There’ve also been at least a half-dozen posthumous books on Johnson or his fights, and now he gets the full Ken Burns treatment with a two-night television documentary, a new biography by Burns’ collaborator Geoffrey C. Ward (published by Knopf) and a sound track by Wynton Marsalis (on Blue Note), all titled Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. Jack is back, asking us to deal with a man and all he defied.
The centerpiece, of course, is the TV presentation, with all the marks of Burns’ craftsmanship from A-list actors as narrators (Samuel L. Jackson is Johnson here) to a wealth of archival film clips and still pictures, some of which will be eye-openers even for aficionados of the subject.
As the subtitle signals, Johnson’s life is divided neatly into two evenings. In the first, we meet Johnson who, even as a child, seems possessed by a limitless sense of derring-do, a sense of himself as a tall-tale hero in the making. Conscious of his physical prowess from his teens, he set his sights on a sports career just as turn-of-the-century America was segregating games from horse racing to baseball. Boxing never drew its color lines quite so clearly as some other sports — except when it came to the heavyweight championship, the epitome of American manhood, which, until Johnson, meant white American manhood. No Ethiop, to use a genteel expression of the time, could expect to step into the ring for a shot at the white man’s title.
Undaunted, Johnson boxes his way from back alleys to the highest echelon, and then he hounds, harasses and finagles his way to a 1908 title match with Tom Burns — which he wins handily. When the previously undefeated champ, Jim Jeffries, is lured out of retirement to defend his race, Johnson pummels him as well.
Black jubilation and white anger flare into riots that claim as many as 26 lives. “Is the Caucasian played out?” a Detroit Free Press writer frets in the post-fight aftermath. Need whites “draw the color line in everything if we are to avoid being whipped individually and collectively?”
In Part II, Johnson is caught by the vise of racism — but never crushed. Burns reminds viewers of what else is going on. In The Birth of a Nation, the Ku Klux Klan is riding to save white America on movie screens coast-to-coast. Woodrow Wilson is bringing Southern-style segregation to the federal government. Johnson’s title, flamboyant lifestyle and his open dalliances with white women give the racists conniptions.
Federal prosecutors twist the so-called white slavery law — intended to deter prostitution — to try Johnson for living and loving as he pleases. They celebrate the guilty verdict with a call for a federal law banning miscegenation.
Meanwhile Johnson gives the feds the slip. He makes it to Canada and Europe before losing to Willard in Cuba and returning to the States. After a year and a day in prison, he spends the rest of his life trying to reclaim his glory.
Where the screen version rolls on with a feeling of inevitability, Ward’s book teems with serendipity, curious connections, complications. We get more of Johnson, warts and all, and of his milieu, from lowlifes to intellectuals.
But in their different ways, both book and TV documentary invite us to contemplate a man strong enough to carry on his back the story of his times — which is still a story for our time as well.
Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson airs at 9 p.m., Jan. 17 and 18, on WTVS-TV (Channel 56). Both parts air back-to-back at 8 p.m., Jan. 22. W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]