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Original Issue

Q+A Ken Burns

The 51-year-old filmmaker's latest work is Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (PBS, Jan. 17--18)

SI: You've called Jack Johnson (below), who fought from 1897 to 1928, one of the most accessible subjects you've ever chronicled. How so?

Burns: Jack Johnson seemed very modern. As we got to know him more, he seemed to be the one historical character you could drop into today and he'd be fine. He'd have his bling, his long coats, his entourage, his women, his fast cars--and he'd be perfectly at home.

SI: Why do you think Muhammad Ali saw Johnson as a kindred spirit?

Burns: We know they are very similar in how they fought, and we know that Ali liked to watch films of Johnson. And he owes him the ability to get away with a brash public persona. Jack Johnson was the original guy mouthing off--when that could get you lynched.

SI: How goes your effort for a presidential pardon for Johnson, who was convicted on what many believe was a trumped-up charge of "taking a minor across state lines for immoral reasons."

Burns: I'm going to keep talking and shouting about it. Senator John McCain was able to get passed by unanimous consent a nonbinding Senate resolution urging the President to pardon Johnson. Even though he is long dead, the pardon helps heal us all because it reminds us of those higher principles which we adhere to.

SI: You may extend your landmark Baseball series?

Burns: We're hoping that PBS will agree to a 10th inning. It would go through the dominant years of the Braves and Yankees and celebrate the individual achievements of McGwire, Sosa and Bonds. Then the greatest moment in all of sports, and I say this without bias [Burns is a Red Sox fan], this year's most remarkable postseason.

SI: Will we ever see a Ken Burns documentary on Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan?

Burns: I promise there will be no Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan documentary. I do long films. How could that possibly be longer than, like, 10 minutes?--Richard Deitsch