The Baddest Man on the Planet

Ringmaster Jack Johnson goes the distance in Ken Burns's epic documentary

Important black Americans, including Booker T. Washington, also denounced Johnson. Like many of the white critics, Washington was offended mainly by Johnson's relationships with white women. To the black fighters who immediately followed Johnson, his legacy was a clear burden. After Johnson lost the belt in 1915, no black heavyweight would get a shot at the title for two decades. The one who finally did--the great Joe Louis--relied on a massive public relations campaign in which he did all he could to position himself as the absolute opposite of Johnson.

It was not until the civil rights movements that Johnson was fully embraced. After The Great White Hope, his posthumous popularity soared. Miles Davis was inspired to record an entire album about Johnson. And when Muhammad Ali saw The Great White Hope, he instantly identified with Johnson. In Ali's big fights, his trainer Bundini Brown would stimulate him by invoking Johnson. "Ghost in the house!" he would cry. "Ghost in the house!"

Unforgivable Blackness shines a light on Johnson's character, largely through the use of Johnson's own words. Though an unreliable narrator in his autobiography, Johnson was extremely eloquent. An avid reader and history buff, he could be flowery in his oratory. He could also be quite funny, and Ken Burns uses the actor Samuel L. Jackson as the voice of the fighter to good effect. But the best Johnson quote in Unforgivable Blackness comes by way of Stanley Crouch. Asked why white women were attracted to black men, Johnson replied with an utterance both cryptic and waggish. "We eat cold eels," he said, "and think distant thoughts."

Am I black enough for you? Jack Johnson in the ring
Am I black enough for you? Jack Johnson in the ring

As a laughing Crouch observes, how can you not love a guy who says something like that?

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