Enduring the exhaustive insanity of Ken Burns’ ‘Unforgivable Blackness.’
In preparation for this Sunday’s broadcast of the 89th Academy Awards, I have found myself in a punishing marathon to consume as many nominees as humanly possible. Naturally, I had already devoured the films that I had actually wanted to see months ago, but in an effort to reach top tier bragging rights to absolutely no one, I am now picking off those titles that originally appeared less desirable. As a populist dunce, that means watching a lot of short films and documentaries. The true beast of the bunch being Ezra Edelman’s OJ: Made in America. Clocking in at just less than 8 hours, this mammoth dissection of “The Trial of the Century” is an utterly demoralizing exploration of our country’s celebrity obsession and systemic racism. It’s also a repulsive reminder that we’ve learned very little since the 1990s.
As its grueling 476 minutes ticked off, I found myself drifting back a few more years to Ken Burns’ similarly themed, and never-ending opus, Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. See folks, the human race is doomed to learn and ignore the same lessons infinitum. We’re probably too far gone to appreciate these meticulously researched chronicles, and would be better suited to have our shame spoon fed to us via Vimeo.
The American Experience as depicted by Ken Burns for PBS is an exhaustive textbook presentation that bombards its audience with tiny character arcs in an effort to bring connectivity to grand historical events. He is a black hole documentarian who sucks in seemingly every scrap of archival footage, period music, photographs, periodicals, and tertiary correspondence to amass an epic slog through The Civil War, the Jazz Age, The Dust Bowl, World War II, and so forth. Sometimes he seems like he was simply placed on this earth to feed my last minute Father’s Day gift ideas. His box set classrooms won over the NPR crowd while encouraging the snootier cynics to mock him with Star Wars and Marvel parodies.
In turning his all consuming vision onto America’s first black heavyweight champion, Ken Burns crafted his most vital and relevant work. Unforgivable Blackness studies (but doesn’t necessarily pick at) the festering wound of slavery while exalting the legend of Jack Johnson. Not one to shy away from voice over trickery, Burns selects They Live brawler Keith David for hosting duties, and Sam Jackson as Johnson’s inner monologue. Both actors go a long way in establishing the boxer’s status of cool, and hyping the thrill of fists pounding on flesh.
Personally, I have never understood the reality of boxing. In 1988, when I was nine years old, I desperately pleaded with my grandfather to sneak us over to my Aunt’s house where she had HBO so we could watch the cable premiere of John McTiernan’s Predator. I was already a blood thirsty fanatic for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando and word on the playground from the kids with the seemingly cooler parents was that Predator packed an even more gruesome delight. Before Arnie and Carl Weathers could share that most epic of meaty handshakes, I had to sit through all 91 seconds of the Mike Tyson vs. Michael Spinks bout that preceded my soon-to-be-new-favorite fictional slaughterfest. My child’s mind could barely process Tyson’s right hand to the body of Spinks, and before I could blink a left-right combination to the jaw reduced the wannabe champion to a huddle of flesh and bones. I was baffled. That’s it? In some ways, I was thrilled just to be all that closer to watching Predator, but I was deeply disturbed by the shock and excitement from the ringside announcers. Battles are meant to last 90 to 120 minutes, that’s how long it took Arnie to devastate his foes. How can anyone be excited to watch a titanic human being pulverize an obviously weaker opponent in less than two minutes?
The pathetic irony of being down for the gratuitous kill count of Commando, but recoiling from the reality of a blood soaked canvas should never be lost on the cinemagoer. As a fan of all manner of movies, I have compartmentalized and rationalized my craving for fantastical bloodshed. Yet, I will never understand the compulsion to witness the bone shattering catastrophe of MTV’s Scarred, and I will never find the appeal in pitting two men against each other. But damn, boxing can be easily manipulated into a helluva metaphor, and as such, it’s the go-to “sport” for a century’s worth of screenwriters. The Set-Up, The Champ, The Harder They Fall, Fat City, Rocky, Raging Bull, The Fighter, etc, etc. Boxing is primordial. Man vs Man. Good vs Evil. Black vs White. From both sides of the screen, this legalized assault is too simple a dichotomy to resist.
That irresistible metaphor began with Jack Johnson.
Born in Galveston, Texas on March 31st of 1878, Jack Johnson entered an America barely held together after the cataclysm of the Civil War. He negotiated the Jim Crow era by hauling bails of cotton to the docks, sweeping classroom floors, and working in stables. An apprenticeship with a carriage painter named Walter Lewis introduced him to boxing when he was asked to spar with some of his meatier associates. Johnson discovered a skill and an uncontrollable enthusiasm for pummeling his opponents, and he would ride this proficiency for attack into national notoriety.
At the turn of the century, boxing had only just been legalized in New York with some states quickly following suit. Matches were often held on barges just inside international waters, and Jack Johnson was forced to earn his reputation brawling in “scientific expeditions” and saloon cellars. Our country’s undisputed white supremacy dictated that no black man could possibly match the physical dominance of Heavyweight champs like John L Sullivan and Gentlemen Jim Jefferies, and while Johnson could take on minor brawls with white combatants, he was repeatedly denied his shot at the title.
While Gentlemen Jim quietly retired with a death’s grip on his belt, Johnson built his reputation as the crownless, but true victor by earning columns in the national newspapers. His exploits with white prostitutes and rich divorcees rankled the self-proclaimed keepers of the sport, but not as much as his continuing authority over every fighter they dared to toss in front of his gloves. Johnson entered every fight with a smile on his face, and he used that grin as a weapon against his rivals. He never felt better than when he was in the ring, and he took that self-assurance on the canvas into every personal interaction, and gained the hatred of white America.
When Tommy Burns was practically handed “The Emperor of Masculinity” title after Gentlemen Jim stepped down, Jack Johnson followed this pretender to the thrown, mocking him from the corner of every match he fought. In Sydney, Burns broke the color line for $30,000, and while Johnson only earned $5,000, he easily claimed the prize. Before the knockout could be secured, police rushed the stage, halted the cameras from capturing another second for fear of newsreel footage spreading such an outrage. The Australian Star called the bout “the first great battle in the inevitable race war.”
Corporate demigods assembled a series of Great White Hopes in an effort to reclaim the honor of the white race from “The Black Peril.” Johnson simply blew kisses to the crowd as he demolished every last one of them. While they failed to find their superman, the federal government manipulated a recent slavery trafficking law to arrest Jack Johnson for escorting his white girlfriend across state lines. Facing a year in prison, Johnson fled the continent and found refuge in Europe.
While D.W. Giffith’s Birth of a Nation played to a White House audience, Jack Johnson desperately fought for a way back into his country. Conviction ultimately seemed a more appealing option than exile, and he literally drove himself across the Mexican border and straight into prison. Time served, Johnson spent his remaining years treading water as a vaudeville entertainer, preacher, and restaurateur.
Unforgivable Blackness is a massive tome of verbose talking heads. Ken Burns assumes your commitment for the long haul, and pleasures himself in hammering you with microfiche detail. The film serves its purpose as history lesson, but also manages to highlight the appeal of boxing as both propaganda and metaphor. There is no concept more powerful or obvious than VS.
The parallels between the Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson and O.J. Simpson are admittedly thin. Both men were giants of their game, and ran afoul with white society while attempting to ignore the very concept of racism. To compare their sins as human beings against each other would be incredibly distasteful and woefully ignorant. However, in looking at both Unforgivable Blackness and O.J. Made in America, it is simply apparent that our country cannot move beyond its own sins. We live in a nation built on the backs of others, and pretending we’ve progressed beyond that oppression is an incurable cancer. How many more eight hour, Oscar nominated documentaries or PBS mini-series will it take before we improve beyond a nodding head of agreement?
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