From the celebrated director of Academy Award-nominated "Brooklyn Bridge" and "Statue of Liberty," UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS: THE RISE AND FALL OF JACK JOHNSON follows Jack Johnson's remarkable journey from his humble beginnings in Galveston, Texas, as the son of former slaves, into the brutal world of professional boxing, where, in turn-of-the century Jim Crow America, the heavyweight champion was an exclusively "white title." Despite the odds, Johnson was able to batter his way up through the professional ranks, and in 1908 he became the first African-American to earn the title Heavyweight Champion of the World.
Ken Burns's documentary style is so unencumbered; the subject matter is effortlessly presented. His regular mix of photos, subtle sound effects, excellent musical score, and actor readings of historical text hasn't changed since his breakthrough of The Civil War
. And it doesn't need to. Even though this 220-minute production is a biography--on heavyweight champion Jack Johnson--the film resonates about the how race was dealt with in the early part of the 20th century. Four decades after the Emancipation, the American black was still struggling to find elementary terms of equality. Along came a strong and headstrong man who took on sport decades before Jackie Robinson and became the key figure in heavyweight fighting, a champion against the longest odds.
Samuel L. Jackson voices Johnson's words with great verve and helps create an absorbing picture of Johnson along with various historians and boxing experts laying down the tale of the tape. Here's a man so smart and patient in the ring who took great liberties in his day-to-day life, unafraid to showcase his success, and ruffle the morals of the time (including, most scandalously, marrying a white woman). Viewing film of his prizefights, the amateur eye can understand Johnson's style and bravura. Burns's certainly takes his time and, as usual, has a vast awry of facts of how the world reacted to news of Johnson's success and the conspiracy which led to his downfall. The highlight, natch, are two of Johnson's epic fights near the end of his reign as champ (and the search for a "Great White Hope"). The appearance of James Earl Jones (who won a Tony for his portrayal of Johnson in 1959) and Wynton Marsalis's musical score are grand touches. --Doug Thomas