Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson Ken Burns

On July fourth, 1910, Jack Johnson, the son of a former slave, became the first black man to win the heavyweight boxing championship. Brash, towering, and with a penchant for flashy tailored suits, Johnson was an uninhibited carouser whose unrepentant individualism and disdain for society's demand that he be a subservient second-class citizen made him the prime target of white racial hatred. In his riveting documentary, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, filmmaker Ken Burns so meticulously details Johnson's remarkable journey that the audience comes to understand not only how difficult it was for him to become a black heavyweight champion in America, but also how perilous it was to be a black man at the turn of the century. Set to a lush original score by Wynton Marsalis, the disc is broken into two parts: the first chronicles Johnson's rise, the other his subsequent fall. Burns and his team (producers David Shaye and Paul Barnes, as well as writer Geoffrey C. Ward) tell Johnson's story by fixing him firmly in his time. Those familiar with Burns's more sweeping oeuvres (Baseball, The Civil War) will be familiar with his style of mixing archival photos, newsreel footage and interviews with straightforward narration, but what is refreshing is that because Burns's canvas is less vast, it provides for a more compelling focus. It doesn't hurt either that Burns has surrounded himself with the "best of the best," including social historians Stanley Crouch and George Plimpton, and actors Sam L. Jackson and James Earle Jones, just to name a few. Burns reveals in the "making of" documentary that these interviews were done far in advance of the script and that the ones that do appear are there due to "happy accidents of extraordinary trial and error." Jones, who portrayed Johnson on both stage and screen, provides an interesting perspective of Johnson's failure as being a product of hubris and not race; while boxing historian Bert Sugar, who despite having not been born the at the time Johnson's greatest fights, provides the sort of detailed fight analysis that leads you to believe that he was seated ringside. But it is in the outstanding fight footage of Johnson's championship bouts against "great white hopes" Jim Jeffries and Tommy Burns that he really comes alive as an iconoclast. With his "aboriginal" blackness, as Stanley Crouch puts it, in full regal view, you get the feeling that he is a man that "didn't just want to pummel white fighters; he wanted everyone to know he was enjoying it." What a pleasure to see it in such a dazzling context. Plus: deleted scenes, music video featuring Wynton Marsalis. (PBS/Paramount)