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Original Issue

Under Review

He grew up in the Jim Crow South, and when Jack Johnson entered the ring, whites jeered. But he paid them no mind, flashed a gold-toothed smile and, with fast hands and an impenetrable defense, became, on Dec. 26, 1908, the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world. Outside the ring Johnson flew in the face of mainstream America, speeding down highways in custom-made cars and consorting with white women. His attitude eventually got him busted on a morals charge, and he spent 10 months in prison. With raw material like this, Ken Burns, the filmmaker who gave us The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz, could hardly have made a dull movie, but with his 31/2-hour Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (PBS, Jan. 17 and 18), he has given us a very long and, at times, slow one that could use more of Johnson's stick-and-move style. Burns's trademark pans over still photographs evoke early-20th-century America, and Samuel L. Jackson's reading of Johnson's letters and statements are effective but best of all is the ancient fight footage, which shows a boxer of unsurpassed skill. When Johnson fought Tommy Burns in 1908, Jack London wrote, "Burns never landed a blow. A dewdrop had more chance in hell than he with the giant Ethiopian." --Nancy Ramsey