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Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

PBS documentary directed by Ken Burns in 2004

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The PBS documentary by Ken Burns lets us reconsider the mixed legacy of Jack Johnson.

Jack Johnson was an avatar of black advancement, in addition to being the first African-American Heavyweight Champion of the World. His mockery of white opponents, no less than his determination live life as he saw fit, caused race riots in the early 20th century. Eventually the State employed its immense power to destroy the man with the “golden smile” out of fear that Americans, specifically dark-skinned Americans, might get the wrong idea about the country in which they lived. The PBS documentary “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns, lets us reconsider the mixed legacy of Jack Johnson, including his background, his boxing prowess, as well as the fate of other African-American heavyweight champions who came in his wake. “He absolutely refused to play by the rules set by the white establishment, or even those of the black community,” said Burns. “In that sense, he fought for freedom not just as a black man, but as an individual.”

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