Sunday, April 12, 2009

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson directed by Ken Burns

This film in my mind is a stereotypical documentary film. It was created for PBS and thus assumes an air of historical exploration about the life of Jack Johnson. The documentary was detached and presented the information rather than pointing the viewer in one direction or another. It was long to watch in one sitting (4 hours) and I do not recommend it. The material was interesting as it was about a black boxer and his striving for his dream through discrimination. It was an inspiring story about Jack’s indifferent attitude towards racism and the white man’s goal to keep him from achieving the Heavyweight Champion of the World title in boxing. Johnson succeeds by winning many matches and never gives up his belief that he is equal to any white man.
The music, interviews and footage told Jack Johnson’s story objectively. Ken Burns’ role was removed from the film and he presented the information without assuming a position on Johnson’s life. There were no re-enactments of the situations but rather the film used archival footage and shots of old newspapers and photographs from the time period. Photographs were zoomed in on by the camera and then the camera would zoom out and to the side to give the viewer a fuller vision of the picture. This type of camera work occurred many times in the film. I enjoyed seeing the old footage of Johnson’s boxing matches. The old black and white footage made Johnson come alive as someone who did exist. The interviews were artificially lit and were done mainly, if not completely, inside office spaces. I did not hear the interviewer ask questions, which made the director appear even less involved. Music was provided by the jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, and was a mixture of swing and jazz. It seemed like era music and blended in with the film. Marsalis is a successful black artist, which adds to the idea that Jack Johnson helped pave the way for others to pursue their passions in life. Narration provided a string throughout the entire documentary; it informed the audience of the events and drove the plot. Quotations from Johnson were read by another voice and allowed the audience to learn some of Johnson’s own thoughts. The director used these elements of narration, interviews, and archival footage to create an unbiased documentary about Jack Johnson.
I think Burns’ agenda is to tell the historical truth through presenting the available information and facts. Early in the film, a story is told about how Johnson went to New York and threatened to jump off of the ship. The passengers then gave him money so that he would not. Though this story is fascinating, Burns addresses Johnson’s tendency for exaggerating his childhood. This and other stories must be taken lightly since they may not have happened the way Johnson claimed. Burns does his best to sort through the facts and give the audience plausible truth. Through his objective view, the director documents the story of an amazing man whose life surmounted expectations.

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