Even when Jack Johnson was a bit heavier and slower than he’d been in his prime, he could knock virtually everyone out of the ring. That’s also true of Ken Burns, who profiles the first black heavyweight boxing champion in “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.”
Johnson spent the first half of his life trying to break the color line in professional boxing, literally chasing titleholder Tommy Burns across the world until Burns’ handlers gave him a bout in Australia. He humiliated Burns, then destroyed undefeated former champ Jim Jeffries when Big Jeff came out of retirement.
Johnson spent the second half of his life evading the law and the hatred of white America, which found him the most intolerable black man of the early 20th century. He was flashy, assertive, handsome, rich, able to claim physical superiority to every white man in his weight class.
When he beat Burns, officials flooded the ring to prevent the white man from being knocked unconscious. (Then the government suppressed the fight films, to prevent blacks from seeing one of their own whip a white.) Race riots followed his triumph, as enraged Caucasians and jubilant African Americans clashed in cities.
But the most “unforgivable” thing about his blackness—the quote comes from his contemporary W.E.B. DuBois—was that he flaunted the white women who shared his bed. He collected them from brothels, broke up at least one marriage, presented concubines as wives, set up a former mistress as head of a Chicago bawdy house. His miscegenation threatened national “virtue,” so prosecutors used the Mann Act—passed by Congress to combat enforced prostitution, not consensual sex—to bring Johnson low.