- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2005

Jack Johnson, the world’s first black heavyweight champion and the subject of Ken Burns’ latest documentary “Unforgivable Blackness: the Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” was a force of nature that would not be contained — especially by the segregation of early 20th century America.

An entrepreneur, patent-holding inventor and articulate scholar who admired Napoleon, he was a superstar athlete with a flair for showmanship. He had an appetite for the good life. Fast women and fast cars were his metier — and would eventually destroy him.

Yet, he remained unrepentant until the end, which came after a horrific car crash in North Carolina in June of 1946.

Playwright Howard Sackler popularized Johnson’s saga in “The Great White Hope,” first produced at the District’s Arena Stage in 1967 before heading to Broadway. Mr. Burns’ two part, four-hour PBS epic, debuting at 9 tonight and continuing tomorrow (on WETA-TV, Channel 26), retells the tale for a new generation.

The project proved irresistible for Mr. Burns, who has previously chronicled the history of America’s music in “Jazz” (2001), America’s game in “Baseball” (1994) and America’s inner turmoil in “The Civil War” (1990).

“At the end of the day he’s the authentic American,” Mr. Burns says during a phone interview from his California home. “He overcomes tremendous odds. He’s swimming upstream in a very powerful current. His is a story running on all cylinders … full of life and full of gusto.”

At a time when boxing has lost its grip on the American imagination, Mr. Burns’ documentary is a reminder of the sport’s majesty. In trademark Burns fashion, “Unforgivable Blackness” brings Johnson’s fights to life through archival photos, grainy (yet graphic) black and white film footage and gut-wrenching sounds that echo the damage of every blow. Not for the squeamish.

Cultural critics Stanley Crouch and Gerald Early (both appeared in “Jazz”) return as talking heads — this time joined by Bert Sugar, the legendary cigar-chomping ringside announcer who considers Johnson one of the five greatest heavyweight champs of all time.

Wynton Marsalis composed the jazzy period score, and additional color (including the often racist language of the era) is provided by a cast of celebrity voices. Among them: actors James Earl Jones, Alan Rickman, Billy Bob Thornton, Courtney B. Vance, Samuel L. Jackson (voicing Johnson) and the late George Plimpton.

“You always look for the exciting stories, and none was more compelling” than Johnson’s, says the filmmaker, who received an Oscar nomination for his first documentary, 1981’s “Brooklyn Bridge,” which chronicles the 19th century construction of the New York City landmark.

The son of former slaves, the future champ was born Arthur John Johnson in Galveston, Texas in 1878, the year after Reconstruction ended. His father and mother worked, respectively, as a janitor and a laundress. From the start, the soft-spoken boy sensed he was destined for more. He yearned for freedom and “the dreams and desires that were common to youth,” Johnson wrote in one of his many journals.

He discovered boxing and began participating in the “battle royal,” a brutal bare-knuckled bout in which six blindfolded black youths beat each other to a pulp (before an all-white audience) until only one remained standing. Frequently, that was Johnson.

He soon began taking on all comers. One of the few knockouts he suffered, at the hands of veteran boxer Joe Choynski in 1901, led to a 23-day jail stint for both men. It proved to be a blessing for Johnson. While incarcerated, the older Choynski helped refine his game.

By 1902 Johnson — both revered and reviled by his community for his showboat ways (educator Booker T. Washington was among his harshest critics) — had won at least 27 matches and was making as much as $1,000 a fight. After he won the unofficial “Negro heavyweight championship” the following year, newspapers began urging a match between Johnson and Jim Jeffries, the reigning heavyweight champ. But like John L. Sullivan before him, Jeffries refused to fight a black man for the championship. He finally relented, and on July, 4, 1910 he squared off against Johnson in the “Battle of the Century” in Reno, Nev.

Johnson disposed of Jeffries in the 16th round to capture the heavyweight title. But the victory came at a high price. Race riots raged from coast-to-coast (including melees in the District and in Baltimore), claiming 19 lives and injuring scores of others. Newspapers that once campaigned for Johnson’s chance at the title now clamored for a white boxer — a “great white hope” — to defeat him.

Failing that, society looked to the law for a KO punch. They found one that, literally, hit Johnson below the belt. Long the target of criticism from both blacks and whites for his relationships with white women, Johnson in 1913 was convicted for violating the Mann Act, the 1910 law which aimed to fight prostitution by making it a crime to transport women across state lines for “immoral purposes.”

He fled the country to avoid jail time, only to return seven years later in 1920 to serve his year-long sentence at Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas. Now 43, Johnson was overweight and past his boxing prime.

“When they couldn’t beat him in the ring, they went after him in his personal life,” says Mr. Burns. “The Mann Act was designed to prevent white slavery, and was never intended to apply to individuals.”

Mr. Burns doesn’t sugarcoat the boxer’s demons. There were bouts with depression, alcoholism and domestic abuse. He beat longtime girlfriend Etta Duryea, a prostitute, so savagely that she wound up in a hospital. The two married in Pittsburgh, a month after her discharge in January of 1911. Disconsolate over his womanizing, the bipolar Duryea committed suicide on Aug. 12, 1912. Four months later, Johnson wed Hattie McClay, another prostitute and the second of Johnson’s three wives.

Frightened at the thought of another Jack Johnson, more than two decades would pass before a black fighter, Joe Louis, was given a shot at the heavyweight crown. Johnson volunteered to train the up-and-coming young fighter, but Louis’ camp — fearing fallout by association — rebuffed him.

As with “Baseball” and “Jazz,” the issue of race “gives the [Johnson’s] story so much of its narrative character,” Mr. Burns says. Between 1901 and 1910, 846 Americans were lynched. Of those, 754 were black, and many were lynched simply for being “too familiar” with white women, he adds.

“Johnson’s story is more than the story of a tremendous athlete, or even one who broke a color line,” Mr. Burns says. “It is the story of a man who forced America to confront its definition of freedom —and that is an issue with which we continue to struggle.”

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