Boxer Jack Johnson posing

His dominance over his white opponents spurred furious debates: ‘Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (Part 2)” – Feb. 3 at 9 pm

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Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

Part Two

Thursday, February 3 at 9 pm

Boxer Jack Johnson in ring being introduced in front of large crowdUnforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson tells the story of the first African-American boxer to win the most coveted title in all of sports and his struggle, in and out of the ring, to live his life as a free man. The film follows Jack Johnson’s remarkable journey from his humble beginnings in Galveston, Texas, as the son of former slaves, to his entry into the brutal world of professional boxing, where, in turn-of-the-century Jim Crow America, “Heavyweight Champion of the World” was an exclusively “white title.” Despite the odds, Johnson was able to batter his way up through the professional ranks, and in 1908 he became the first African-American to earn the heavyweight championship.

Johnson’s victory set in motion a worldwide search for a Great White Hope to restore the title to the white race. And when no one could be found to beat the champion in the ring, his own government tried to destroy him in the courts, using his relationship with white women as the excuse to prosecute him. Determined to live his life regardless of the confines imposed by his color, Jack Johnson emerges as a central figure in America’s ongoing struggle to deal with the question of race.

Boxer Jack Johnson striking bare knuckle pose“Any serious study of American history inevitably engages the question of race and the monumental hypocrisy born at our founding; the existence of slavery in a country that had just proclaimed to the world that “all men are created equal. . .” In the story of Jack Johnson, these questions come to a profound crux. This is not just a story of supreme athletic achievement, nor even just a story of sex—black and white sex—which got Johnson into so much trouble. It’s not even wholly about race, though Johnson’s “unforgivable blackness” propels this extraordinary story. In the end, this is a story about freedom, and one black man’s insistence that he be able to live a life nothing short of that of a free man.”
– Ken Burns