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.