Unforgivable Blackness

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Unforgivable Blackness

Postby Keepcoolbutcare on Mon Jan 23, 2006 7:58 pm

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.

"Johnson in many ways is an embodiment of the African-American struggle to be truly free in this country -- economically, socially and politically," said Burns. "He absolutely refused to play by the rules set by the white establishment, or even those of the black community. In that sense, he fought for freedom not just as a black man, but as an individual."


Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball, JAZZ) who has made some powerful, illuminating and outright brilliant documentaries over the years, has outdone his own damn self with this film about the first (and some would say greatest) black heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson.

I adore his "epic" documentaries, but they can come off a little slow, a tad bit dry. Not this. In 3 1/2 hours, Burns is able to tell the story of one of the most unique, heroic, tragic figures that America has ever produced, a film that should be required viewing in schools across the country.

I thought it was pretty badass that our narrator was Keith David, but was floored when it was Samuel L. Jackson who came on as the "voice" of Johnson. That's what folks like to call a casting coup, and Samuel delivers one of his finest "performances" (seems his best work has been as a voice actor recently) ever. In fact, all the voice acting is top notch; Alan Rickman as a duly impressed British reporter, the "Ugly" himself Eli Wallach reading the accounts of several newpapers ("ugly" doesn't even do those justice), Ed Harris as James J. Jeffries, the legendary white champion who wouldn't give Johnson a shot on "principle", coaxed out of retirement to reaffirm the "glory" of the white race, Adam Arkin, Amy Madigan, Brian Cox, Studs Terkel...I'll end with Billy Bob Thorton, who's first lines (delivered with all the venemous hate of every damn racist cracker who ever lived) made the hackles on my nape standup in attention.

Possibly even more impressive is the list of historians, social critics and famous faces (James Earl Jones, who played Jack in both the broadway and theatrical versions of The Great White Hope has a unique take on Johnson) who chime in with anecdotes, opinions and commentary. The one who stands out the most is the controversial jazz critic and all around gadfly in the debate of African American culture, Stanley Crouch. This is a man who's flat out punched his critics, yet lambastes gansta rap, a divisive figure to say the least...but man oh man, I was riveted every time he appeared. I could sit around forever just listening to that man expound.

Famous figures who are quoted include Jack London (you know, there's a Jack London square here in Oakland, a place of "urban" renewal that's the epitome of "corporate culture"...I cannot say how fucked up that is seeing how the man was a socialist and a racist. To all ya'll not in the know, Oakland is a predominantly minority city!), Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois and quotes from various newpaper reporters of the time and of course Johnson himself.

The still photos of the time are exemplary. Burns use of the actual fight footage (digitally enhanced so they could do close-ups so you can see Johnson grinning and laughing at his hapless opponents) to show that not only was Johnson a brilliant fighter for his time, but of all time. No one could hit him...the analogy is made to Ali, as Johnson had a unique style and some damn quick hands. Great athletes often make what they're doing look easy and Johnson exemplifies that. But this isn't the case of simply a great athlete for Johnson was a remarkably intelligent man. Boxing was indeed a "science" to him. Watching the films you can see how not only was he just gifted with athletic prowess, but technically he was light years ahead of his opponents.

Wynton Marsalis original score is a blast, you'll be humming the blues influenced theme song for days after...and ragtime remains one of the great American contributions to music. Smoking horns, bass notes on the odd numbered beats. We're due for a ragtime revival, damn it!

It's the Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, with the first disc devoted to the rise. I almost couldn't bring myself to watch the fall, but it wasn't so bad. Let's just say tho' that the worst thing Johnson could've done is win the title. White folks just couldn't go for that, let alone this fierce individualist who {gasp!} flaunted his wealth and {double gasp!!} dared to fuck white women. Yeah, that's right, he fucked...A LOT! The man dared to live life as he wanted, brashly crossing all the social mores of the time. I was reminded of Oscar Wilde, Galileo, Socrates, reminded of anyone who was so clearly born before his time and was made to suffer because of it.

I cannot recommend this enough to anyone who's interested in history, boxing, African American culture and documentary filmmaking. Rent it peeps, and enjoy. I didn't know where to put this as I was going to originally post it what have you been watching, or in one of the documentary related threads here in the Zone. But fuck it, I'll watch this thread quickly die, but hope at least one of two of you end up watching it and posting your comments on this masterwork. You'll be doing yourselves a favor.
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Postby Seppuku on Mon Jan 23, 2006 8:09 pm

Great review KCBC, you should be proud of yourself.

One question: that is a stunning coup getting both Keith David AND Sam the Man to appear in the same movie- I always wondered when that'd happen and if the world would be the same afterwards. You said they do voice-work here, does this mean they re-enact Johnson's life in cartoon form, or is it like that Sam Peckinpah short documentary that came out some years ago (and bagged the Oscar), where you just have actors doing voice-overs (Ed Harris playing Sam in that too) over still pictures?
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Postby The Garbage Man on Mon Jan 23, 2006 8:15 pm

I managed to catch the last half of this when it played on PBS last year. It was mesmerizing, to say the least.

I heartily agree with your recommendation, keepcool.
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Postby Keepcoolbutcare on Mon Jan 23, 2006 8:43 pm

seppukudkurosawa wrote: You said they do voice-work here, does this mean they re-enact Johnson's life in cartoon form, or is it like that Sam Peckinpah short documentary that came out some years ago (and bagged the Oscar), where you just have actors doing voice-overs (Ed Harris playing Sam in that too) over still pictures?


Voice-overs over still pics. Classy. I should've expounded more on the photos and archival footage Burns uses.

And Garbage, watch the first part! Not nearly as depressing...
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Postby TonyWilson on Mon Jan 23, 2006 8:49 pm

This sounds excellent KC, I hadn't heard about this at all and it sounds brilliant, I love Ken Burns' JAZZ and this sounds even more riveting, plus what a cast!! Thanks for telling me about it, I'll check it out as soon as I can. Nice one.
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Postby The Garbage Man on Mon Jan 23, 2006 8:51 pm

Will do. I'm surprised it took so long to come out on DVD, I remember seeing it quite a while ago.

Too much emphasis on tote bags at that place, I tells ya.
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Postby Keepcoolbutcare on Mon Jan 23, 2006 8:58 pm

The Garbage Man wrote:Too much emphasis on tote bags at that place, I tells ya.


not enough 'bling over at PBS to suit my tastes.

damn public broadcasting, when will they learn?
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Postby John-Locke on Mon Jan 23, 2006 9:47 pm

Anyone in the UK or outside of the US or just plain tight can obtain this Doc on BT, I found it on Mininova ;) It's PBS so I think it's okay eh?
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Postby Ribbons on Sun Jan 06, 2008 10:24 pm

I only wish I'd read this review when it was still eligible for a Zonie. Sounds like a fascinating documentary/character profile.
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Postby Keepcoolbutcare on Sun Jan 06, 2008 10:54 pm

Ribbons wrote:I only wish I'd read this review when it was still eligible for a Zonie.


it wouldn't of won anyway, not against the juggernaut that was TitGirl's BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN opus.

Ribbons wrote:Sounds like a fascinating documentary/character profile.


darn tootin it is.
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Re: Unforgivable Blackness

Postby Ribbons on Sat Jan 29, 2011 4:58 pm

I finally watched Advanced Darkness: The Life and Times of Joe Jackson. It's pretty fantastic. And that guy is a total pimp. I now forgive him for coming back as that Hawaiian folk singer. While I'm on the subject I should also say that Jack Johnson went to jail for being an actual pimp -- even though he wasn't.

I knew a little bit about his life already and he seemed like an interesting guy, but watching this documentary it really hits home how fascinating an individual he was. Not only was he lightyears ahead of his time as a boxer (when he won the heavyweight championship for the first time, he HELD the current champion up for several rounds just so he could keep whaling on him), but as a person. At a time (1908) when pretty much every American was occupied, personally and professionally, with the hierarchy of race, Johnson didn't even seem to notice it existed. He just did whatever he felt like, all the time, which enraged people on both sides of the color line. It got to the point that the US government made finding ways to arrest Jack Johnson a national priority.

One of the most interesting aspects of his "rise" to me is that the white boxer Johnson beat to become heavyweight champion -- a man he had to pursue across the world just for the right to get into the ring with him -- had changed his name from "Brusso" to "Burns" in order to be more popular (Italian-Americans were not particularly well-liked at the turn of the century either). You'd think he'd be able to identify with a man trying to overcome ethnic prejudice in the same profession, but Burns was one of Johnson's fiercest critics. Leading up to their bout, he still claimed Johnson had no business fighting him, and told the press "I'll beat this man or my name isn't Tommy Burns" -- which it wasn't, and which he didn't. Something to ponder, anyway.
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