what i'm watching: unforgivable blackness

Last night we started watching "Unforgivable Blackness," Ken Burns's film about the boxer Jack Johnson.

Johnson was one of the greatest American athletes of all time, and in his day, undeniably the greatest. But what makes Johnson an irresistible historical figure was his complete refusal to live by the rules white society demanded of African American men in that era.

The most vivid example of this was his choice of partners. In a time when black men were killed because someone suggested they glanced at a white woman, Johnson openly lived and travelled with a succession of white women who called themselves his wife. He was the first African American popular icon, then was persecuted by the government, and eventually brought down.

Johnson's career and his life story perfectly expose the twisted logic and utter ludicrousness of Jim Crow America.

In the early 20th Century, boxing was one of the three major sports of the western imagination (along with horse racing and baseball). The title "Heavyweight Champion of the World" was the most coveted title for any individual athlete. It bestowed riches, fame and glory on its holder in a way unimaginable today.

Johnson defeated all African American opponents, and any white boxer who would step into a ring with him. But convention had it that no Heavyweight Champion would ever fight a black man. That would risk the title being held by a black man, and that could not be allowed to happen.

Johnson would not accept this, and he made it his life's quest to goad a Heavyweight Champion to meet him in the ring. When it finally took place, the match was viewed as a contest of supremacy between the "white race" and the "Negro race". The results sparked deadly riots throughout the country.

It's an almost unbelievable story, and I don't want to say too much about it, as watching Ken Burns unfold it for you is so fascinating and compelling. I'm an unabashed Ken Burns fan. I missed "Unforgivable Blackness" when it first ran on PBS, but with this Zip rental, I think I've now seen every film he's made. He never disappoints.

1 comment:

James Redekop said...

I was just listening to the latest Scientific American podcast (Science Talk), and they mentioned a film on HBO (also available on DVD and Netflix) called Something the Lord Made (2004) about Alfred Blalock (Alan Rickman), a white surgeon, and Vivien Thomas (Mos Def), Blalock's black lab assistant who developed a number of cardiac procedures still used today. The movie deals, among other things, with the problems Thomas faced while trying to work as a black medical scientist in the US in the 40s and 50s.

The HBO page on the film has a link to the original award-winning article the movie was based on.