Best of the Decade, No. 99: Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

The Ken Burns Method became an unfortunate byword for documentary veracity in 2000s—Squally’s stomach is still recovering from the treacly use of pictures and voiceover in Seabiscuit. His four-hour epic Unforgivable Blackness, on the other hand, was a genuine scoop lifted from an unreported era of American history. From Galveston, Johnson battled his way to the heavyweight championship in 1908. Disgust at his prowess reached such a height that he literally had to travel around the world to Sydney for his chance at the title—in the process giving birth to the idea of “the great white hope.” His defeat of Jim Jeffries in 1910 led to deadly race riots while feeding black pride. Johnson’s subsequent “fall,” due in part to his taste for white women and sporting lifestyle, remains a paradigm that continues to inspire athletes and expose the nation’s racial fissures. Amid the vintage film and Samuel L. Jackson reading from Johnson’s memoirs, Burns’s narrative thrusts like a haymaker. Obama’s victory in 2008 only made scrutiny of the Johnson myth more essential.

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