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  • Unforgivable Blackness - The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson
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Unforgivable Blackness - The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

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Product Details

  • Actors: Jack Johnson, Keith David, Samuel L. Jackson, Adam Arkin, Philip Bosco
  • Directors: Ken Burns
  • Writers: Geoffrey C. Ward
  • Producers: Ken Burns, David Schaye, Pam Tubridy Baucom, Paul Barnes, Susanna Steisel
  • Format: Black & White, Color, Dolby, Widescreen, NTSC
  • Language: English (Dolby Digital 5.1)
  • Subtitles: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Number of discs: 2
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: Pbs Paramount
  • DVD Release Date: January 11, 2005
  • Run Time: 214 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B0006FO8IY
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #116,233 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "Unforgivable Blackness - The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson" on IMDb

Special Features

  • "The Making of Unforgivable Blackness"
  • Footage not seen in the PBS broadcast
  • Music video

Editorial Reviews

Product Description

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

Customer Reviews

This film reflects his life in a balanced way.
Burns does a magnificent job of presenting the life of Jack Johnson the human being in the racist society of the U.S. in the early 20th Century.
Love this Documentary it is the best I have seen !
Ernest W. Henderson

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

43 of 47 people found the following review helpful By chefdevergue VINE VOICE on January 19, 2005
Format: DVD
After the adequate "Baseball" and downright disappointing "Jazz," some of the luster associated with the name of Ken Burns has worn off in the last few years. I couldn't help but wonder, when I saw that this documentary was in the works, if we were doomed to get more of the same from Burns, especially considering the involvement of Stanley Crouch in the project. Thankfully, it appears that Burns has returned to form with "Unforgivable Blackness."

Really, it is about time somebody did a documentary on Johnson. If he isn't the best heavyweight ever, there are only maybe two others that one could put ahead of him. Only Ali can rival him for mastery of the science of boxing, yet Johnson is comparatively obscure these days.

In many ways, this documentary spends relatively little time on the actual sport of boxing itself, which will be an annoyance to boxing enthusiasts. Personally, I would have enjoyed a more detailed discussion of just how great Johnson's defensive skills and the fact that he was rarely a slugger in the ring (Stanley Ketchel notwithstanding), but this might have been boring to a mainstream audience. Mostly, Burns returns to familiar territory --- race relations in an earlier era --- only with a dynamic personal & rebellious twist in the person of Johnson, who was utterly unconcerned with his critics, be they black or white, and who felt no compulsion to work for the betterment of anyone other than himself.

Even though I was relatively familiar with the government's persecution of Johnson via the Mann Act, it was still amazing to see just how many resources the government was willing to expend in order to bring one black boxer under its control. Laissez faire obviously is in the eye of the beholder.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By J. S. Kaminski on February 8, 2005
Format: VHS Tape
I knew something of Jack Johnson before I saw this documentary, but Ken Burns tells his story with incredible detail. One of the many revelations for me was the astonishing level of accepted racism that was prevalent at the time. Supposedly reputable newspapers (e.g., The New York Times) and authors (Jack London) are quoted at length, with bigoted excerpts that border on inflammatory. One couldn't imagine hearing something of this nature from today's mainstream media. Just the very idea that a black man/African-American could defeat a white man seemed preposterous to many; so much so that boxers often refused to even fight one. It took Jack Johnson a long time to get a shot at the title; but once he got it, it took white America even longer to get it back. What stands out in this program is the towering figure of Johnson himself.

I couldn't help noticing that Johnson appeared to be the prototype for the modern American athlete. All the brashness, bravado, conceit and over-indulgence that we associate with the "headliners" of today...all this began with Johnson. He seemed to revel in flouting society's conventions. When you think of the arrogance of Ali, the controversy of Jim Brown, the bravado of Namath...Jack Johnson was all this before they were. At the same time, however, I can't help but remember Charles Barkley saying "I am not a role model." Jack Johnson wasn't either, as much as Black America wanted him to be. In the end, he was too loud, too defiant, too controversial. He was too much, really, for the times. But I came away from this program thinking exactly what he wanted his epitaph to be: Jack Johnson WAS a man. No doubt about that.

Five stars.
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28 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Center Man on February 2, 2005
Format: DVD
Blacks could not fight for the world heavyweight championship in the 19th century. The "world's strongest man," it was thought, could not be black: Blacks were not men. That attitude drove race relations to an all time low between 1890 and 1917. Segregation, disenfranchisement and lynching took root throughout the country. Hanging black men was sport.

Which makes Jack Johnson's bravery remarkable. He refused to be a "complacent negro." When Tommy Burns, then-heavyweight champion, refused to give him a fight, Johnson chased him around the world and forced him to accept his challenge for the world title. Johnson knocked Burns out in 1908, then beat Jim Jeffries, "the Great White Hope," in Reno, NV in 1910. White America, by and large, did not approve. Prosecutors later railroaded him on a false count of transporting women over state lines.

Quite a story, huh? Ken Burns thinks so, and he empties his tool box here, pulling out breathtaking cinematography, top-of-the-shelf voiceovers, and superb period photographs. The director gets a big assist from the wealth of film with Johnson. The speedy jabs and sly charisma fly out of the flickering black and white frames, making Johnson one of Burns' more dynamic protagonists.

That's important, because this is pretty grim stuff. The slurs thrown at Johnson made me shiver, as did the casual assumption that blacks like Johnson were beasts. The boxer, to his credit, refused to bow to any of it.

That's a shining example for the rest of us. It's a problem for "Unforgivable Blackness."

Race is Burns' chief concern, and his documentaries show an admirable frankness in tackling the issue.
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