First aired on PBS in 2005, this documentary tells the story of Jack Johnson the first African American Heavyweight Boxing Champion. Directed by Ken Burns and told in his signature style of found footage, photographs and voice overs. The story of Jack Johnson cannot be told without also telling the story of racism and the social inequalities present in America at the time. Born in Galveston, Texas John “Jack” Johnson to former slaves and dropped out of school so he could work. He started “boxing” as a child in back ally fights arranged and encouraged by drunk white men who wanted to be entertained. Not always the victory but quite often, Johnson boasted that he usually took home the prize of a handful of coins.
He got his start in box when the aging champion Joe Choynski came to town to teach the locals how to box. Fighting an exhibition match, Choynski took on Johnson and knocked him out at the end of the third round. Just after this, Texas Rangers came in and broke up the match, arresting both fighters holding them for 23 days. Two days longer than a man who killed his wife Johnson recalls. After his release from jail, Johnson travelled the country boxing whoever he could and winning. His style was very effective but not showy and this did not sit well with the patrons who paid to see a good fight. He was vilified in the press, called lazy, shiftless and cowardly as all African Americans were depicted. Johnson’s style was similar to Jim Corbett, the former Heavyweight Champion, who was praised as “the cleverest man in boxing.”
Johnson soon set his eyes on the biggest prize of all for a boxer, even through it was out of his reach as a black man, to be the Heavyweight Champion of the world. In 1903 he won the not recognized Black Heavyweight title and sought to fight for the official heavyweight title but the then Champion, Jim Jeffries refused to fight him saying that no African American would ever have a chance to win the title off of him. Johnson would finally get his chance in 1908. After stalking Champion Tommy Burns all around the world for two years, Burns finally acquiesced to Johnson’s taunts and granted him a title match in Sydney, Australia. Johnson finally succeed at his goal of becoming world champion at the end of round two when he knocked out Burns.
This of course did not sit well with whites in America as black people were not thought of as equals or fully human. In their minds the champion had to be a white man. One of the interviewees in the documentary, writer Gerald Early, points out that blacks did not get a say in the matter because they were considered non beings and just did not count. What made Johnson’s victory even more bitter was the way he lived his life. He was well dressed and every flashy. He hung with loose women, drank heavily and was considered a good “Sport”. Not a word used in today’s culture, the best way to describe a “Sport” in contemporary terms would a combination of Lil Wayne, George Clooney and every character Samuel L. Jackson has ever played. He spent his money to show others he had it and many white men did not like that this black man had what they never would.
This documentary won Ken Burns an Emmy award and for good reason. The interviews are engaging, the voice overs perfectly acted and the editing tight. It is hard not to watch this film and become a Jack Johnson fan. Burns and his production team did a good job of finding footage and pictures and using those to tell Johnson’s story. I liked the use of actual images of Johnson and not re-enactments, as if Burns wanted Johnson to tell his story. This documentary was made eight years ago, a time when it would have been easy to cheapen this historic figures tale with CGI characters and bad 3D renderings but that take out the authenticity the pictures and films give this film.
Also this is one of few media representation of an African American that isn’t skewed too far to the negative nor to the positive. Johnson lived a life that would be very typical of celebrities of any race today. He would be painted as a bad boy in the media because of his morality choices but not some much because of his color. This was not the case a hundred years when he was alive. He isn’t painted as a great savior of African Americans either. His story is simply told.