Not to be confused with pop musician Jack Johnson, or Mos Def's rock group Black Jack Johnson, the Jack Johnson was the first, undisputed heavyweight boxing champion of the world. In 1910, Johnson beat the living crap out of Jim Jeffries and won the championship belt, thereby setting off a series of race riots that rocked the nation. And why would Johnson's victory set off such deadly riots? The answer is simple: America was a racist nation that could not deal with a black man who refused to be treated like a slave.
In his latest documentary, Ken Burns looks at the life and times of arguably the single most threatening black man in the history of the United States and the history of boxing. Burns paints a portrait of Johnson as a proud man who fought his way to the top against seemingly insurmountable odds, who continued to hold the championship despite intense efforts to strip him of his title, and who kept company with white women. All this took place in a time when boxing was considered barbaric and efforts were made to ban the sport altogether. It was also a time when a black man could be lynched for even looking at a white woman.
Burns' film, however, is about much more than a black boxer and his penchant for white women. The esteemed documentarian does a masterful job of detailing Johnson's life and career, but in the process he also brings to light the ugly racist history of this nation. Using archival footage, old photographs and tons of newspaper clippings, Burns paints a historical portrait of the United States that is bound to disturb. Those whose politics lean to the right, or those whose necks are particular shade of red, may choose to dismiss this film as liberal propaganda. But the sad truth is that all Unforgivable Blackness does present the facts as they were.
The brilliance of Unforgivable Blackness is that it is honest about Johnson's life and career, but in recounting that story Burns also tells the story of this nation. It is not a pretty picture, but one filled with enough brutal honesty that it should leave every person who sees Unforgivable Blackness either angry or ashamed-or both.
Also check out: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Director Wes Anderson's latest was a disappointment to some, but those people are idiots with no taste. Bill Murray gives another career-defining turn as Steve Zissou, an oceanographer and documentary filmmaker whose work earned him love, admiration and respect. Murray is brilliant, proving himself once again to be a master of the dry, understated humor that masks an underlying melancholy. Like Anderson's earlier Royal Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic is about the mending of a broken family unit and the Ahab-like Zissou's inevitable confrontation with the white whale that is his life.