• Tommy Burns v Jack Johnson. 26 December 1908. (Wikicommons)
REVIEW | Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns gives intimate look into one of history's most fascinating athletes, writes film critic, Travis Akbar.
By
Travis Akbar

12 Sep 2019 - 3:37 PM  UPDATED 18 Sep 2019 - 2:35 PM

One well-known cost of America’s brutal settlement process is slavery. Despite being formally eradicated in 1863, the legislation — known as the Emancipation Proclamation — could only dictate so much. The equal treatment of African-Americans was, as Martin Luther King Jr put it 100 years later in 1963, only a dream.

Jack Johnson was amongst the first generation to experience this type of faux freedom. He was the son of emancipated plantation slaves, Henry and Tina. Unlike his parents, Jack would not be institutionalised by slavery, but he would live through its legacy; the Jim Crow era.

Johnson is one of history’s most prolific boxers. He left school, ran away from his home in Texas and headed to New York. He found employment in a gym and saved up his money to buy boxing gloves, and learnt how to box.

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The multiple Emmy Award-winning documentary, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, tells his story as a skilled sportsman living in the continued racial divide after Emancipation.

This powerful film, directed by acclaimed documentary maker Ken Burns (The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, The Roosevelts) uses the voices of talented actors including Ed Harris, Billy Bob Thornton and Alan Rickman, who quote different newspaper articles of the time. Johnson’s voice is played by Samuel L. Jackson. Famous voice actor, Keith David is the arch narrator who tells Johnson’s life story as a fighter, a rebel, a self-believer and resister.  

By 1903, Johnson held the World Coloured Heavyweight Championship title, the only title available to non-white boxers. Like many of the institutions in Johnson’s time, even the boxing ring was segregated. However, Johnson had his sights on the ‘World Heavyweight Champion’, which was held by James J. Jeffries who refused to fight Johnson, because he was black.  

Jeffries retired undefeated as the heavyweight champ in 1905 and in 1906, Jeffries chose Tommy Burns as his successor. Burns also refused to fight black athletes, but Johnson taunted him for a bout which eventuated with Burns declaring that he would fight Johnson, but for no less than a $30,000, which at the time, was big money. It was the perfect excuse. No one could say he ‘refused to fight black men’ but of course, no one would be able to come up with the money.

But astonishingly someone did.

On the other side of the world in Sydney, Australia, Hugh ‘Huge Deal’ McIntosh, a business entrepreneur, came up with the money and the fight was set for, fittingly, ‘Boxing Day’, 26 December 1908.

In the documentary, McIntosh is voiced by veteran Australian actor Jack Thompson. The bout was one of the most significant sporting events of the time and had huge racial implications. The idea that a black athlete could take the title was radical, but simply having a black and a white fighter in the same ring had never been done before in a professional setting. Reflecting the times, the 20,000 strong crowd at Sydney Stadium by-and-large were backing favourite, Burns. An African-American taking the heavyweight title from a white man was a big moment, which is exactly what Johnson did.

However, upon winning it, Johnson was called a fake, and later came claims that Burns wasn’t fit for the match, never legitimately the Heavyweight champ to begin with, as he had been gifted the title by Jefferies. Racial discrimination continued to follow Johnson, as it had done his whole career. Eventually, the public and the media, called upon Jeffries to come out of retirement and defend the title. The fight was eventually scheduled. If ever there was evidence that this fight was more political than pure competition it was that Jeffries was dubbed ‘The Great White Hope’ while Johnson was labelled ‘The Black Peril’. It was the first fight to become known as ‘The Fight of the Century’.

Unforgivable Blackness: The rise and fall of Jack Johnson is extremely intimate. I’ve known Johnson’s story for a long time, but this film gives audiences an opportunity to get to know Johnson himself, not just the big moments that made him famous. It doesn't just profile one of the world’s greatest boxers, but honours him as a fascinating man in history.

Johnson’s character is strong, selfish, entitled, patient, profound and his confidence made him a hated man. He was also a refined speaker. As Samuel L. Jackson recites journal entries and article quotes from Johnson, you realise that he wasn’t just a fighter, he was a thinker. He spoke so well and was so articulated, he never publicly let the fierce racial abuse he faced get the better of him. Even in the ring, when the ‘N’ word would be aggressively screamed in his face by the opposition and their trainers, as well as the crowd, he would just smile. The film also joyfully shines a light on Johnson’s flamboyance, as he is often seen speeding around in race cars and living in houses that were in ‘white’ neighbourhoods. He did what he wanted, no matter what was expected of him. Today, you’d compare his lifestyles to that of enigmatic UFC fighter Connor McGregor — both being great fighters, with bright personalities which draw people in.

Director Ken Burns has done a great job at putting together a thought-provoking documentary that gives the viewer an intimate look into the life of, not only one of the world’s greatest boxers, but a fascinating man in history.

It would be hard to know whether Johnson’s skills would make him as prolific if he were a fighter today, given the sport has advanced so much and looks nothing like it did in 1908. However, his plight as a black athlete still rings true today, making his resilience and patience just as important today as it was in his prime.

 

Travis is a Wongatha man living on Peramangk country. He is a Film Critic and Freelance Writer. Follow Travis @TravAkbar  

Unforgivable Blackness Part 1 is available on SBS On Demand. Part 2 airs Monday, 16 September at 9.35pm on NITV and will be available on SBS On Demand after broadcast.