Monday, February 14, 2011

UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

When I was a kid I loved boxing. I read about it, watched it on TV, even kept score round by round. What turned me off permanently was the Patterson-Ellis title bout on September 14, 1968. The old champ Floyd Patterson was attempting to regain the crown and become the heavyweight king for an unprecedented third time. He gave WBA (one of two crowning authorities, the WBC being the other) champ Ellis a beating and my scorecard gave it easily to my fellow Brooklynite and all-around good citizen. I'm paraphrasing but the post-fight dialogue with announcer Howard Cosell went something like this:
HOWARD: Champ! Champ! How do you feel? It looks like you're going to regain the crown and be the heavyweight champion again!
FLOYD: Let's wait and see what the referee says Howard.
The referee in Sweden was the sole judge and he gave the decision to Ellis for reasons unknown. My own conclusion as an 11-year-old buff was that there were powers greater than Floyd that wanted a young champion that they could control.

Part of being a young buff was learning the continuous lineage of the heavyweight championship line. From John L. Sullivan in 1885, there followed Corbett, Fitzsimmons, Hart, Burns and the greatest  champ of all time, Jack Johnson. Johnson lived like a modern man and how he avoided being shot, lynched, or physically destroyed is a testament to the sheer force that this man exuded. The racism of the time prevented him from fighting for the title for many years as white champs refused to fight him. Once he was given the opportunity, he took the title and held it from 1908-1915.

The Ken Burns documentary, UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, is very well done and especially clever in the showing of and commentary on real fight footage from 100 years ago. It's almost corny to dub in the sound of punches and the crowd noise but it works with silent footage. All the other Burns touches are there, such as period music and famous people reading from archival newspapers and magazines.

I particularly recommend the on-screen commentary from James Earl Jones, who played Johnson in THE GREAT WHITE HOPE on stage and screen. Some great still photos are shown of Jones and Muhammad Ali play sparring, back in the day when Ali was banned from boxing. Jones movingly talks about Johnson's ethos: how his heart, mind, soul, and very manhood was his alone: he was not a slave.

Part I concludes with Johnson's ascension to the title. Part II covers the fall and it's sad to see a man flee his country and have to bargain his way back in to serve a one-year jail term for violating the Mann Act. In 2011 there's recurring talk of a presidential pardon. Even though he lived his later years fighting bums and living off past glory, his final rounds are filled more dignity than many modern champs who end up addled from too many blows and broke: Joe Louis working as a casino greeter always comes to mind. I was happy to see Johnson make it to 68. It's implied that his fatal car crash was precipitated by some racial mistreatment; he drove off speeding in a rage. It's hard to believe that he would have done that.

No comments: