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Boxing While Black: Ken Burns Chronicles Jack Johnson's Bout with Racism

By Shelley Gabert

Jack Johnson, subject of Ken Burns' 'Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson', airing on PBS in January 2005.

The quest for freedom and the restraints of race are opposing themes that resonate in almost all of Ken Burns' films, from The Civil War to Baseball to Jazz. But in his newest work, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, a two-part documentary about the first African-American Heavyweight Champion of the World, these forces define a man who not only challenged the status quo, but was ahead of his time in demanding to live his life without any limitations, racial or otherwise.

"Jack Johnson wished to live his life nothing short of a free man," says Burns. "And that was a dangerous choice for an African-American in the first two decades of the 20th century."

A remarkable athlete, Johnson was also a larger-than-life character reminiscent of modern-day celebrity sports figures who also are often expected to serve as examples for their race. Johnson not only resisted that role, but he flaunted his fame and his wealth and during a time when just the suspicion of a black man flirting with a white woman could lead to his death, he openly romanced and married white women. His troubles prompted the renowned black scholar W.E. B. DuBois to comment, "The reason Jack Johnson was so beset by his own countrya country ironically which had only recently reaffirmed that all men were created equalwas because of his Unforgivable Blackness."

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson premieres on PBS on Martin Luther King Day, January 17. Burns' longtime collaborator, Geoffrey C. Ward, wrote the script, and jazz artist Wynton Marsalis composed the scorethe first original score for a Burns film. Johnson's biographer, Randy Roberts, and boxing aficionados Stanley Crouch, Bert Sugar and the late George Plimpton, to whom the film is dedicated, appear in the film along with writer/essayist Gerald Early, who has served as a consultant on many of Burns' films.

"I've been associated with other sports films, but this is far and away the richest, the most complex and most searching and probing look of an African-American athlete that I've ever been involved in," proclaims Early, a professor of English and Afro-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

"In my other films I approached race from an aerial point of view and then went down into the specifics," Burns notes. "But with Jack Johnson I had the opportunity to begin at the beginning and move up through the life of an extraordinary human being that reflects an entire age and American consciousness."

Part One of Unforgivable Blackness chronicles Jackson's rise as a boxer, from his early days in Galveston, Texas, to his victories over both black and white opponents to his denial of a chance to compete for the heavyweight titlethe exclusive domain of white America. But in 1908, the Canadian fighter Tommy Burns agreed to fight Johnson for the title. Johnson's subsequent victory angered whites, and they began searching for a "great white hope" to win back the title.

"This is the story of an incredible athlete, but it's also a story about freedom and courage," says Burns. "Every time he got in the ring he could have been killed, but he kept boxing. If he hadn't taken white lovers, the boxing community would have continued to send great white hopes up against him until he retired."

Jim Jeffries, who had refused to fight Johnson during his active career, came out of retirement to fight him in Reno , Nevada on July 4, 1910 . In "The Battle of the Century," Johnson knocked Jeffries out in the 15th rounds--a symbolic act of independence and defiance that spurred race riots across the United States . But even more dangerous than Johnson's beating white men in the ring were his romances with--and two marriages to--white women, most of whom were prostitutes.

Part Two of the film focuses on Johnson's downfall at the hands of the US Government, which used the Mann Act, passed in 1910 by Congress, as a means of persecution. The Mann Act banned the transportation of women in interstate or foreign commerce for the purpose of prostitution, debauchery or any other immoral purpose. Even though this law was intended to be used against commercialized vice and not against a man's private relationships, Johnson was arrested and convicted in 1913. He left the country and lived as a fugitive in Europe, but returned to the US in 1920 and, after surrendering to authorities, served a year in prison. This conviction marred a successful boxing career.

"He wouldn't let anybody define him; he was a self-defined man," says James Earl Jones in Unforgivable Blackness. "And this issue of him being black was not that relevant to him, but the issue of his being free was very relevant."

Jones played Johnson in Howard Sackler's Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Great White Hope, which premiered on Broadway in 1968, and in the 1970 film adaptation. "We put James Earl Jones in just as we put Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain, without any commentary," Burns notes. "You don't find out until the last five minutes of the film why Jones is in there, other than the fact that he seems to know viscerally who this guy is, just as Hal Holbrook seemed to know viscerally who Mark Twain was." Instead, it was a lengthy biographical sketch written by Dave Schaye, a co-producer on Jack Johnson, that inspired Burns to research further.

"Schaye's sketch was so interesting and, as Geoffrey and I continued to research his life, we were struck by how much more complicated and compelling, how much more nuanced and interesting his life was than how it had been portrayed in The Great White Hope," Burns notes.

Ward's research was so thorough and involved that he ended up writing what Burns and Early describe as the definitive book on Johnson's life: Unforgivable Blackness, The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, which was published in late October. Both Burns and Ward move beyond the mythology to unearth the real man. Fortunately, Johnson himself was helpful in this endeavor, for he gave many interviews over the course of his career and also wrote an autobiography, although many of his claims are less than truthful. Ward found another, previously unknown autobiography that Johnson wrote during his stay in prison.

"This is a man who has written about his life and who thought about the significance of his life a great deal," Early notes. "He gave a lot of interviews, which meant that over the course of his life he was able to rehearse his life, figure out how he wanted to present his life to people."

Burns also had access to hundreds of photographs of Johnson and reels of fight footage. "That's not surprising, since the history of cinema and the history of prize fighting in its early days are actually quite intertwined," Early explains. "Prize fighting was the pay-per-view of its time, as it is now, and Johnson's fights were filmed and shown in theaters for money."

Because of the power of these images, projectionists would stop the newsreels right before Johnson knocked out Jeffries, and Congress passed legislation that banned the interstate transport of fight films, particularly Johnson's, to help stem further riots and protests. "Our film benefits from these silent fight films," said Burns. "We have almost every punch thrown, every second of every round, sometimes from more than one angle, from fights that took place in 1908, 1910 and 1915."

And the film is never more fascinating in its construction than its subject. In the end, Johnson comes across as a true renaissance man. An avid reader and admirer of Napoleon, he was an inventor who held a patent for a wrench he developed for work on his custom-made cars. He also owned the Café de Champion in Chicago .

"Jack Johnson's life is such a modern story and the drama is real, not manufactured," Burns maintains. "He was like a media superstar of today, with the big coats, the gold teeth, the 'bling-bling' and the entourage. There are also echoes of O.J. Simpson and Kobe Bryant."

Johnson was also a symbol of hope for many black Americans, yet he was ambivalent about playing that rolean attitude that was not well received by DuBois and Booker T. Washington, both of whom believed that a prominent black person had to represent the race well. Washington even espoused that for blacks to advance economically they "should accept the separation of the races at least for the foreseeable future."

"A black person in the spotlight needed to uplift the race, but Johnson told people that he wasn't into the uplift business or liberating his race; he just wanted to live his life," says Early. "Jack Johnson was really the first black pop culture star, because his sex life was a real object of interest for people."

For most whites, however, Johnson was "profligate, arrogant and amoral, a dark menace and a danger to the natural order of things." Even after winning the heavyweight title, his hometown of Galveston canceled a parade in his honor after reports of his marriage to a white woman were proved correct. "We're a prurient culture, yet pornography is one of our biggest industries, so we vibrate very strangely when it comes to sex, especially when it comes to a black man and a white women," Burns observes.

The relevance of themes in Johnson's life to those of contemporary America was like coming full circle for Burns. "We've matured and made extraordinary progress as a country and our films show that, but, as Jack Johnson reminds us, we're still bedeviled and troubled by race," he observes. "As proud as I am of the other films I've made, I don't think we've gotten as deep or pierced race the way we have with Jack Johnson. This is one of the most satisfying productions I've ever worked on."

Burns has also led an appeal to President George W. Bush for a presidential pardon of Johnson's convictions and charges, a cause that is supported by a committee made up of many collaborators on the film, along with boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard. Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain, and Representatives Jesse Jackson Jr. and Charles Rangle. The group filed a petition with the US Department of Justice in July for the pardon.

"Johnson's conviction for violating the Mann Act was racist from the beginning to the end and one of the greatest abuses of justice involving an American athlete that this country has ever seen," Burns declares.

While Burns' film, and the possibility for a presidential pardon, will help restore Johnson's legacy and his rightful place in history, Johnson was very clear on how he wanted to be remembered. "Whatever you write about me," he told a young reporter sometime before he died in an automobile accident in 1948, "just remember that I was a man."

Editor's note: All of Gerald Early's and some of Ken Burns' comments were made at a panel discussion during the Television Critics Association summer press tour.


Shelley Gabert is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who regularly covers film and television. She can be reached at