Tonight on NPT-Channel 8 at 8:00 p.m. CST is Part 1 of UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS: THE RISE AND FALL OF JACK JOHNSON. This film by Ken Burns chronicles the life and career of boxer Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion and one of the greatest fighters of the 20th century. Johnson ultimately lost his title in a bout in Cuba in 1915, after fleeing the United States following his federal conviction for allegedly violating the Mann Act, a progressive-era law intended to crack down on commercialized vice but used against Johnson to create an example against, to quote the prosecutor, “the evils of miscegenation.”
“Johnson in many ways is an embodiment of the African-American struggle to be truly free in this country — economically, socially and politically,” says Burns. “He absolutely refused to play by the rules set by the white establishment, or even those of the black community. In that sense, he fought for freedom not just as a black man, but as an individual.”
In reviewing the original broadcast of the documentary in 2005, the Washington Post called it, “(a) compelling story of a complex man…told through the exquisite integration of archival photographs and silent film footage, narratives from period newspapers, journals, autobiographies, correspondence, histories, contemporary commentary and a period music score by Wynton Marsalis.