3.02.2007

what i'm watching: ken burns, unforgiveable blackness

Last night we watched the rest of the Ken Burns film that I blogged about yesterday: "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson". It was truly excellent.

It occurred to me that if you have never seen a Ken Burns film, this would be a perfect introduction to his work. At two 90-minute segments, the length is not intimidating - by Burns's standards, it's a short-short! - but it still works in the the signature Ken Burns style. Wynton Marsalis did the music, a who's-who of great actors did the voices - including Samuel L. Jackson reading Jack Johnson's words, Billy Bob Thornton and Ed Harris, among many others - plus the usual great interviews. The writer and critic Stanley Crouch is terrific, and James Earl Jones, who created the role based on Jack Johnson in the Broadway play "The Great White Hope," is a brilliant inclusion.

Above all, "Unforgivable Blackness" explores Burns's vision of the United States of America, in all its glory and all its insanity. In terms of racism and racist violence, the first decade of the 20th Century was probably the worst at any time since Emancipation. While Booker T. Washington was telling Negroes to work hard and keep their heads down, while lynchings were rampant, while newspapers depicted African Americans as clown-faced buffoons and referred to them in articles and editorials as coons and darkies, while most African Americans were denied the basic rights of citizenship - in the midst of this, one man declared he was free. One highly intelligent, supremely talented, and thoroughly confident man said, No. This is my country. I am free. I am a man. I will do as I please. How that man lived in that world, and how that world reacted to him, is revelatory.

"Unforgivable Blackness" is available for rent on a 2-DVD set. It includes a making-of feature, which, if you don't know how Burns makes his movies, will be a real treat.

5 comments:

sister.susie said...

Thanks for another interesting dvd recommendation, L-girl. I hadn't heard about that pbs show before. I just put it on hold at the library and look forward to a thought-provoking evening in the near future.

By the way, I recently watched the NFB's "Paddle to the Sea" and I read the book it was based on.

As much as I enjoyed seeing the carved figure in the boat bobbing around on the water, I found the original story even more compelling. No surprise there, but it was a fun little side-trip down memory lane.

L-girl said...

I just put it on hold at the library and look forward to a thought-provoking evening in the near future.

Great! I'm so glad.

Just so you know, it's not really a PBS show. PBS just broadcasts all of Ken Burns's film.

By the way, I recently watched the NFB's "Paddle to the Sea" and I read the book it was based on.

Way cool. How did you see the movie? Is it available for rent or download...? I'd love to see it again.

sister.susie said...

I borrowed "Paddle-to-the-Sea" from the library. It was in VHS format, which is starting to look ancient these days, but it was in good shape.

I love the public library -- it makes the community a better place, and it's one of the many reasons I don't mind paying taxes.

Just so you know, it's not really a PBS show. PBS just broadcasts all of Ken Burns's film.

Thanks for clarifying.

L-girl said...

I love the public library -- it makes the community a better place

I am a huge fan of libraries, too - always have been. Mississauga has a great library system.

Funny though, I always forget about the library for movies! I'm going to look for Paddle To The Sea. Thanks!

L-girl said...

Do you know what, sister.susie? You just solved a problem for me.

I have been wondering what to do about movies during the upcoming baseball season. I don't want to pay for my Zip.ca membership when I'll only be watching a movie once in a while. But I do want that occasional movie, and there aren't any good video stores near us.

Solution: the library!!

Hey, thanks for that!