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Unforgivable Blackness - The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2005)

Adam Arkin , Philip Bosco , Ken Burns  |  NR |  DVD
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)

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Product Details

  • Actors: Adam Arkin, Philip Bosco, Keith David, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson
  • Directors: Ken Burns
  • Format: Black & White, Closed-captioned, Color, NTSC, Widescreen
  • Language: English
  • Dubbed: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 2
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: PBS
  • DVD Release Date: January 11, 2005
  • Run Time: 220 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #35,346 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)

Special Features


Editorial Reviews

In this Emmy-® Award-winning documentary by Ken Burns, follow Jack Johnson's journey from his beginnings as the son of former slaves, to his entry into the brutal world of professional boxing, where he was able to battle his way up through the ranks and become the first African-American Heavyweight Champion of the World. The biography of Jack Johnson is accompanied by more than fifty photographs and draws from a wealth of new material.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
37 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best Burns documentary in quite some time January 19, 2005
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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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Jack Johnson was a Man 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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23 of 29 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Rise," yes. "Fall," no. February 2, 2005
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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Best Documentary
I am a fan of well done documentary films. This is the most well done documentary I have ever seen, on any subject. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Michael
5.0 out of 5 stars Priceless!!
for the amazing film footage and photos alone are worth the price!! and Ken Burns? The best!!
If a more in depth movie is ever made about Jack Johnson this documentary will... Read more
Published 1 month ago by craig easley
5.0 out of 5 stars The Muhammad Ali of his time!
Yes he was the Ali of his time. And if you matched them up in their prime Jack Johnson would have flattened Ali, Joe Lewis, Marciano, & Dempsey in one night. Big talk Huh? Read more
Published 3 months ago by submariner
2.0 out of 5 stars there was a much better film about Jack Johnson
I mean, these Ken Burns films bore me sometimes. They get so many "experts", and for some reason they all seem like blowhards, annoying. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Douglas B. Barr
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating history of the boxing and race.
Excellent biography of Jack Johnson and the history of boxing and the racial tensions in this nation. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Roberta H. Lopez
5.0 out of 5 stars I saw this in June at a Road Scholar ( elderhostel) program at Pilgrim...
I bought this to give as a gift to a relative who I knew would find it as interesting as I did. It points out the racial unfairness that was so prevalent in sports at that time.
Published 7 months ago by Richard Schober
5.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable
I really enjoyed how this black man was his own man during a time that it could have cost him his life.

A "real" man:Jack Johnson
Published 7 months ago by Jane
5.0 out of 5 stars More great work from Ken Burns
Great documentary on a very interesting person in a very different time in our country. Jackie Robinson, he was not.
Published 10 months ago by Nancy A. Crocker
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best
Love this Documentary it is the best I have seen ! I have told so many about it .
Good job PBS!!!
Published 12 months ago by Ernest W. Henderson
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting..
Very profound. In reality his led life was so similar to others, especially in that same profession. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Thomas Greene
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