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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Political > Unforgivable Blackness- The Rise & Fall Of Jack Johnson (PBS)

Unforgivable Blackness – The Rise & Fall Of Jack Johnson (PBS)


Picture: B-     Sound: B-     Extras: C+     Episodes: B



Back in 1970, director Martin Ritt’s film The Great White Hope told the story of Jack Johnson, a black boxer an America at its most racist could not keep down.  The title refers to the “need” for a white boxer to beat him and “restore pride” to whites, which is simply just about keeping white supremacy in tact.  The documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has decided to take on the subject and the result is a nearly four-hours long documentary mini-series entitled Unforgivable Blackness – The Rise & Fall Of Jack Johnson (2004).


Here, Burns and his team go out of their way to spell out the life of the man, the effect he had on the country and the shockwaves his success caused.  So much so in fact, that the waves would reach international proportions.  Samuel L. Jackson does Johnson’s voiceovers, while Keith David delivers yet another winning narration.  Other name actors also participate, but we will save them as a surprise, with one exception.  Billy Bob Thorton is so excellent as the voice of white racism that he single-handedly adds a chilling new dimension to how vividly real this is to watch.  Jack Johnson is an American hero and held up better than most anyone else would have.  This is a fine tribute to him.


As for Burns, I was never his biggest fan; his idea that all history is conveniently linear has always been troublesome.  The early programs that put him on the map often overdid the stills and very nearly became a spoof of itself.  In the years since, he has definitely become better at making these programs, far more justifying his acclaim.  He was, at least, always sincere and ambitious.  PBS can still go a few rounds with any cable/satellite network around and Unforgivable Blackness is one of the best such shows we have seen this year.


The anamorphically enhanced 1.78 X 1/16 X 9 image is one of the better examples we have seen come from Paramount’s PBS releases.  Originating in digital High Definition and including actual film footage of the fights, which are in mixed condition, the presentation is a bit above the usual mix we get for documentaries.  The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is good and in this case, with a Wynton Marsalis actually providing a score (!), that is a plus.  With that, its too bad it is not in DTS.  Otherwise, this offers the usual talking heads, but they have plenty to say.  The result is a nice combination that makes a riveting show all the more compelling.  Extras include a making of program that runs just over 16 minutes, a Music Video for a song composed by Wynton Marsalis, and nine deleted scenes running about 24 minutes on DVD 1.  The same weblinks and credits are on both discs.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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