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Documentary pulls no punches

'Unforgivable Blackness' captures heavyweight champ's struggle

It is hard to know what today's relentless, ubiquitous, and preachy sporting press would make of Jack Johnson. The subject of Ken Burns's documentary was part Muhammad Ali (an indomitable black man who infuriated the Establishment), part Joe Namath (the athlete as swaggering, stylish party animal), and part Mike Tyson (a self-destructive soul with a knack for generating bad headlines.) Toss all that complexity into turn-of-the-20th-century America -- with its lynchings and Jim Crow laws -- and you have someone who seems to be a historical accident.

Even when Joe Louis became America's second black heavyweight champion -- a full 29 years after Johnson won his title -- he felt the key to his professional survival was to publicly model himself as the anti-Johnson. Three decades later, America still wasn't ready for Johnson.

For those only vaguely familiar with the story, ''Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson" should prove a fascinating examination of a once-in-a lifetime figure. And even for those better versed, Burns's insightful treatment will leave you wondering just how someone deemed ''a danger to the natural order of things" managed not just to rise to the height of his profession but literally to keep breathing.

''Unforgivable Blackness" is really three films. One is about the ugly, overt racism of America in the early 1900s. From Boston's heavyweight hero John L. Sullivan, who adamantly refused to fight black fighters, to the demeaning newspaper headlines and cruel slurs that greeted Johnson, the theme of African-Americans as subhuman resonated throughout the culture. In 1915, the same year Johnson finally lost the title to Jess Willard, the latest in a long line of so-called ''great white hopes," D.W. Griffith's racist ''The Birth of a Nation" was being screened to boffo reviews in Woodrow Wilson's White House. When Johnson defeated former champ Jim Jeffries -- who came out of retirement to try and win one for White America -- violent race riots spilled onto the streets of cities all over the country. His proclivity for white women even inspired an effort, albeit unsuccessful, to ban racial intermarriage in the US Constitution.

The second is a boxing movie, one spiced with vintage video of Johnson's big fights that dramatically reinforces the stylistic comparison to Ali. A swift, gifted boxer who could easily outmaneuver opponents and evade their punches, Johnson is seen clowning in the ring during fights, taunting his opponents, and, at one point, even applauding when an outgunned foe managed to land a good punch. (Johnson's taunting and tormenting of white fighters betrayed his smoldering anger over racial inequality. Six decades later, Ali would do the same against black fighters -- like Ernie Terrell, Floyd Patterson, and Joe Frazier -- who he believed represented the mainstream Establishment culture.)

''Unforgivable Blackness" also comes down firmly on one side of the ageless boxing argument about whether Johnson, at age 37, took a dive when he lost his title in the 26th round to huge, lumbering Willard in Havana in 1915. Burns makes a convincing case -- one abetted by footage that shows Johnson pummeling Willard in the early rounds -- that the aging champ tried to win but ultimately wilted in the Havana heat and was beaten fair and square. In any event, Willard's explosive and decisive right hands to Johnson's head and body seem all too real.

The most interesting movie within the movie is the character study of Johnson that leaves one with boundless admiration for his extraordinary courage but raises broader questions. Simply put, Johnson partied far too hard, was a serial philanderer who was not above mistreating a woman, and had an ego that functioned like a runaway freight train. Even after he retired, he was addicted to the spotlight, traipsing around the country willing to do almost anything to keep the public's eyes riveted on him.

It's tempting to say that unlike Ali, who became an antiwar icon and America's most famous Black Muslim, Johnson never stood for any cause beyond his own unquenchable pursuit of happiness. But that conveniently forgets the fact that in his era, Johnson's indulgent lifestyle was a way of telling a hostile world that he -- and by extension every African-American -- was a free man.

However favorably one is inclined to view Johnson, it is hard to quarrel with writer and critic Stanley Crouch's characterization of him at the end of the film as an American original.

''These guys . . . who there's no recipe for," Crouch noted. ''He's one of them."

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