The Baddest Man on the Planet

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

In 1908, on the day after Christmas, the great black heavyweight Jack Johnson stepped into a boxing ring in Sydney, Australia, to fight the reigning champ, a stubby Canadian called Tommy Burns. There was more at stake--much more--than a boxing belt. Johnson--flamboyant and free-spirited, a man who bowed to no one--was despised by white America. His participation in a title bout constituted a breach of the sport's color line, established in the 1880s by the first heavyweight champion, John L. Sullivan. "I will not fight a Negro," Sullivan had declared. "I never have and I never will."

It turned out that the future champion Burns did not share Sullivan's resolve. Between the gate (about 20,000 people attended) and the film rights, there was a lot of money to be had from a Johnson-Burns fight. So when Australian promoter Hugh "Huge Deal" McIntosh promised an unprecedented $30,000 purse, Burns--who had long avoided Johnson on grounds of race--happily acquiesced.

Before the bout, Burns announced, "I'll beat the nigger or my name isn't Tommy Burns." But his real name wasn't Tommy Burns; he was born Noah Brusso. As to whether he thought he could actually defeat Johnson, no one knows. From the opening bell, Johnson toyed with Burns. He flashed his famous golden smile and taunted his opponent. "Here I am, Tommy," Johnson shouted. "Who told you I was yellow?" The fight was so one-sided that Sydney police stopped the filming during the final round, lest the moviegoing public be exposed to the spectacle of a black man's moment of triumph over a white champion.

Johnson was many things in his life--a dandy, a braggart, a womanizer, a gambler, a drinker, a fugitive, a convict, a vaudevillian, even an inventor (he held the patent on a special wrench designed for working on racing cars, another of his passions). But he was never yellow. In the language of the day, Johnson was a "bad nigger," and he swaggered through Jim Crow America as if prejudice did not exist. In the ring, he reveled in humiliating white boxers, delaying or altogether forgoing the knockout to extend their suffering. Conversely, he often took it easy on fellow blacks.

At a time when other black men were lynched for looking at a white woman the wrong way, the Galveston-born Johnson flaunted his relationships with white women, often traveling from city to city with two or three of them in tow. Ultimately, his relationship with one "sporting woman"--as prostitutes were called--became the pretext for Johnson's arrest and conviction on a trumped-up Mann Act violation, which prohibited the transport of women across state lines for "immoral purposes."

After his Mann Act conviction, Johnson--who had always dodged serious consequences from previous arrests--became a fugitive, living abroad. Naturally, Johnson's prosecution by the government raises comparisons with subsequent black heavyweight champions who also ran afoul of the law. Like Muhammad Ali, Johnson was targeted by the FBI because he was viewed as a threat to the established order. Like Mike Tyson, he was repeatedly arrested for his erratic driving (which, in the end, would prove Johnson's ruin; he died in a car crash in 1946). Like Sonny Liston, he was, in his day, the most hated man in America. But if Johnson was Ali, Tyson, and Liston wrapped into one, he was also more. With all his complexity, internal contradictions, and astounding boldness in face of the most noxious racism, there is a good case to be made that Johnson is the most compelling figure in boxing history, and maybe in all sport.


It is no wonder, then, that the documentary maker Ken Burns would set his sights on Johnson. In Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (airing in two parts, Monday and Tuesday, on PBS, and now available on DVD), Burns lays out Johnson's epic story in vivid and sprawling detail (the film runs nearly four hours). Like Johnson, who was renowned as a technical master in the ring, Burns is a consummate craftsman. He makes deft use of the photographic record and contemporaneous accounts of Johnson's career. The silent movies that depict Johnson's most important fights are hard to follow, marred as they are by the primitive camerawork and poor technology of the time. For the fight sequences, the documentarian inserts sound effects--the thwack of a glove, the cheers and hisses of the crowd--and brings the action in the ring to life.

A broad array of Johnson experts contribute insights. There are quotes from Randy Roberts, author of the authoritative Johnson bio Papa Jack; the actor James Earl Jones, who played the Johnson character in the Broadway play and film The Great White Hope; Jose Torres, the former light-heavyweight champion; Bert Sugar, the fedora-wearing boxing historian; W.C. Heinz, author of the renowned boxing novel The Professional; Stanley Crouch, the critic and essayist; and others. Each in his own way adds richness to Burns's carefully layered portrait of Johnson.

Over the years, Johnson has meant radically different things to different people. At the peak of his career, white America considered Johnson a menace--and a threat to the purity of white women. "If the black man wins," the New York Times editorialized before Johnson's fight with former champion Jim Jeffries, "thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors." The Times was right in one regard: Johnson's annihilation of Jeffries did heighten public passions. In the aftermath of the fight, race riots broke out in cities across the country, resulting in scores of deaths.

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."

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

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