May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
August 20, 2009
When I teach modern U.S. history, I find that students will wonder occasionally why American history courses invariably involve sustained discussions about race. The question is fair, actually, particularly when posed by international students who originate from places with entirely separate histories, where racial issues are sometimes different both in degree and kind. Race, as I usually explain, has been a peculiar problem in the United States; for generations, U.S. society in general and authorities from the local to the national level went to exceedingly great lengths, and with sustained malice, to deprive a significant portion of the U.S. population of their civil and political rights and to keep them physically separated from the majority. This deprivation, and all of the specious assumptions on which it was based, was particularly tragic because it betrayed the fundamental principles of American democracy and the centuries-old belief in natural rights and liberties. The young preacher-turned-activist who arrived in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956, in the aftermath of Rosa Parks’ arrest, understood this betrayal; he declared it his aim to realize those democratic ideals, and when he stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 and addressed an audience of a quarter million, he talked not only about his dream for his children but about his admiration for the U.S. constitution, a beautiful document soiled only by his country’s inability to keep its own basic promises.
The story of Jack Johnson, the first African-American boxer to win the heavyweight title, is in many respects a microcosm of this larger dilemma of race within a democratic society, and Ken Burns’ documentary about Johnson, Unforgivable Blackness (which I recently watched for the first time), is a fairly illuminating look at the connection between the life and the history. Johnson was born in 1878, just one year after Reconstruction had ended and the Republican party, which previously rectified some of the lingering racial abuses in America, struck a deal that traded the South for the White House. As Burns makes clear, Johnson grew up when life for freed blacks drastically worsened: they were denied the vote in the south; incidents of lynching increased; the federal supreme court sanctioned segregation; the ideology of Jim Crow prevailed. The last thing white Americans wanted to see in this era was a black man asserting his physical power, beating up a white man, and then smiling about it, as Johnson often did; to them, this represented the world turned upside down. Any victories by Johnson in the ring would send the wrong signal, give unbridled hope to African-Americans; a writer in The New York Times feared that “if the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misrepresent his victory as justifying claims to much more than physical equality with their white neighbors.”
Johnson’s first major victory came in 1908 against Tommy Burns, a man whose mouth carried more power than his fists ever did. Burns taunted Johnson in the ring and hurled racial epithets at him. Johnson responded not only by beating Burns, literally, but by holding him up, prolonging the fight to punish him further, all the while smiling intently at the crowd and trading verbal jabs with them. The footage of the fight, which Ken Burns uses in his documentary, clearly displays Johnson’s physical and social bravado and the audience’s animosity towards him. Johnson was fighting Tommy Burns and the United States at the same time.
Burns makes no mistake about the powerful racial overtones of Johnson’s career. Most whites hated the boxer because he had come to dominate a sport traditionally dominated by white fighters, and they were so taken aback by his success and fortune that they engaged in the most tiresome of racial clichés: Johnson was an “animal”; entire cross-sections of the country prayed for a “white hope” to rescue the title from the “beast” who had stolen it; when Johnson won, commentators often made excuses for his victories, instead of simply praising his superiority in the ring; a foreign reporter blatantly wrote that Johnson “displays all the gross and overbearing insolence which makes what we call the buck nigger insufferable.” Burns identifies in Johnson a fierce independence of spirit, interprets it as the essence of the man. Johnson angered others, but didn’t care. He dated, then married, white women and flaunted his wealth by wearing tailored suits and driving custom cars. Even some blacks saw him as a threat; he was either too profligate or, to Booker T. Washington, he undermined African-Americans’ opportunities for economic advancement because he fed white prejudice instead of rising above it (or giving in to it). As a filmmaker, Burns understands the drama inherent in Johnson’s life and in America’s history. Combining images and text, he carefully and incrementally builds suspense towards the two turning points in Johnson’s career, namely, his defeat in 1910 of “the great white hope,” Jim Jeffries, the heavyweight champion who previously had retired undefeated, and Johnson’s own defeat at the hands of Jess Willard, a fighter who stood over Johnson by at least six inches and who was ten years his junior. Johnson’s victory over Jeffries had all the drama one can expect in sports but carried with it all the pains of American racism. Riots erupted across the country as white citizens and local authorities fought with blacks who had come out to the streets of numerous American cities to celebrate Johnson’s victory. At least Jeffries, who had previously refused not only to fight Johnson, but any black fighter, finally displayed an ounce of modesty and decorum; Johnson, he admitted, was “better than I ever was.”
Interesting parallels exist between Johnson and artists who similarly embodied his independence. In 1970, Miles Davis took the experiments he had already been making with electric music and acoustic jazz to an even greater fusion of the two genres with A Tribute to Jack Johnson, his progressive soundtrack to filmmaker William Cayton’s documentary on the boxer. Miles did not want simply to alter jazz by filtering its improvisational qualities through the repetitious structures of rock ‘n’ roll; he wanted, as he put it, to make rock ‘n’ roll more “black.” Jazz, a form of music that, like rock, had originated within black culture, could allow him to do this. Miles was inveterately forward-looking, his music, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, amorphous, maximal, simultaneously transgressive and transcendent. Even now, nearly forty years later, it sounds progressive, particularly when contrasted with Wynton Marsalis’ heavily traditional soundtrack for Burns’ documentary. I suppose Marsalis’ soundtrack is fitting. As a filmmaker, Burns travels within a very traditional medium; he uses the requisite images, original footage, letters and sources read aloud by professional actors, interviews with writers and historians, the strictly chronological framework found in numerous documentaries. But for all of his proficiency, I can’t help but wonder if Burns might have made the form of his story as free-form as his subject’s life, as forward looking as Miles’ music; I can’t help but wonder what someone like Todd Haynes, whose biopic of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, filtered the singer’s life through varied, occasionally abstract enactments, could make of a subject like Jack Johnson. The traditions that have dominated the narrative structures of modern documentaries cast long, burdensome shadows. Miles certainly wanted to free himself of traditions when he cast his album; most of all, Johnson himself believed in refuting long-standing American conventions.
Those traditions of race relations deeply informed the responses of boxing audiences, the press, and the general public; they had very similar effects on the U.S. government. Until the giant Jess Willard appeared, no white man could defeat Jack Johnson. The U.S. government, fearing Johnson’s notoriety, banned fight films to keep footage of his victories from the American public. Ultimately, the U.S. government found that Johnson’s private life was the only way to contain him, to keep him “in place”, as so many of his white contemporaries wanted. Some of Johnson’s lovers had been prostitutes, and they traveled with him across state lines to his fights. The U.S. government, under the Mann Act, which prohibited the trafficking of “white slaves,” retroactively charged Johnson and sentenced him to prison. But, like so much in Johnson’s life, the imprisonment was on his own terms; he served only after having fled custody to live abroad in Europe and returning when he felt it was time to do so. Irene Pineau, Johnson’s widow, aptly summarized the man’s spirit upon his death, from an auto accident, in 1946. “I loved him because of his courage,” she said. “He faced the world unafraid.”