Unforgivable Blackness: A Film Directed by Ken Burns

About the Film Rebel of the Progressive Era Sparring The Fight of the Century Knockout Ghost in the House For Teachers
About the Film
Episode Synopses

Broadcast Schedule

Ken Burns

Paul Barnes

David Schaye

The Music

Production Credits

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Episode Synopses Unforgivable 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.

Part One 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, the heavyweight champion was an exclusively "white title." Johnson lived his life out loud, wearing fancy clothes, driving fast cars and openly flaunting the conventions of the time by dating and then marrying white women. 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 title Heavyweight Champion of the World. Johnson's victory set in motion a worldwide search for a "white hope" to restore the title to the white race. On July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nevada, ex-champion Jim Jeffries, the new "Great White Hope," came out of retirement to challenge Jack Johnson. Johnson easily won the contest, billed as the Battle of the Century, despite a hostile crowd and a steady stream of racial epithets hurled from Jeffries' corner. Johnson's victory provoked race riots all around the country, but his troubles were only just beginning.

By the end of 1910, as Part Two begins, Jack Johnson was on top of the world, the undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World; the most famous — and the most notorious — African-American on earth. But forces were gathering in America to try to stop him. When no one could be found to beat the champion in the ring, the U.S. government set out to destroy him in the courts, using his sometimes-troubled relationships with white women as the excuse to prosecute him. Unfairly charged with violating the Mann Act, a progressive era piece of legislation designed to stop commercialized vice — not relationships between consenting adults — Jack Johnson was convicted and sentenced to jail. Skipping bail, Johnson fled to Europe, where he remained a fugitive for many years. In 1915 in Havana, Cuba, he defended his title in a still-controversial fight against Jess Willard, a fight that went on for 26 rounds in 105 degree heat. 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.