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Jack Johnson Returns to the Ring in ‘The Big Blow’

A key figure in the American Experience may finally get his cinematic due.
Unforgivable Blackness
By  · Published on June 2nd, 2018

A key figure in the American Experience may finally get his cinematic due.

During the same era that produced The Birth of a Nation, Jack Johnson pulverized his way through a series of “Great White Hopes” to become the first African American Heavyweight Champion. As a reward, various corporate demigods and the federal government conspired to imprison Johnson by manipulating the Mann Act of 1910. This slavery trafficking law was slapped on Johnson for escorting his white girlfriend across state lines. Johnson briefly fled to Mexico, but rather than accepting a life in exile, the boxer drove himself to prison. He served his time and spent the rest of his life bouncing from one menial job to another.

Ken Burns exhaustively detailed the saga of Jack Johnson in the PBS docu-series, Unforgivable Blackness. It’s a grueling 476 minutes, but expertly tracks the deeply seeded sin of American racism. Johnson in the ring, facing off against some desperate white wannabe contender, became the ultimate metaphor for the perpetual conflict of race relations.

Nearly a hundred years after his arrest, the boxer’s name is in headlines once again. Last week, Sylvester Stallone successfully petitioned Donald Trump to pardon Johnson for violating the Mann Act. While Johnson never saw justice in his lifetime (he died in a car crash in 1946, after speeding away from a diner that refused to serve him), there is the tiniest bit of karmic relief in acknowledging this wrong. Too little, too late…most definitely.

While Stallone has been pushing his Balboa Productions into greenlighting a Jack Johnson biopic, Deadline is now reporting that Ridley Scott might beat him to the punch (pun intended). The producer has tapped Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) to direct an adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s novella, The Big Blow.

The book details an epic fight between Chicago legend Jim McBride and local heavyweight Jack Johnson. Set against the “Storm of the Century” that smashed into Galveston, Texas in 1900, The Big Blow dramatizes the ruling class’ fear and their enthusiasm to label “The Black Peril.” Lansdale’s signature style captures the authenticity of the place, and more importantly, how a terror of the unknown leads to violence.

The author has been here before and took to his Twitter as an act of crossing his fingers.

Scott has actually had the rights to this book for quite some time, but he’s struggled to find financers to take a bite. Famed screenwriter Millard Kaufman (Gun Crazy, Bad Day At Black Rock) was first hired to take it on, but he, unfortunately, passed away in 2009. Author Joe Lansdale, hisownself, had a draft up to bat shortly afterward, but the trigger was never pulled. In 2012 Oren Moverman (The Messenger, Rampart) was attached to both write and direct, but then a flurry of other projects kept stealing his attention. But, but, but, but…Now it’s Green’s turn, and he is apparently still working from Moverman’s script.

Green is fully aware of the universal appeal to Johnson’s epic history. The Sundance hotshot is eager to see what he can do with a real budget and the mentorship of Sir Ridley:

The Big Blow is an opportunity for me to dive into the mind, body and spirit of one of the most iconic and complex human beings to ever walk the planet. Someone who lived his life to the absolute fullest whilst fighting (literally and figuratively) for his life, during a very dark time in America.

Hopefully, the pardon is just enough publicity to get this project off the ground. The Big Blow is an exciting mixture of pulp entertainment and angry cultural commentary. While I’m sure Stallone’s biopic would successfully plumb a life full of tragedy and triumph, Lansdale’s novel has the razor’s edge by zeroing in on one singular event. You don’t need decades to dissect. One good punch can achieve a K.O.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)