By Miki Turner
Special to Page 3

LOS ANGELES -- When it comes to documentaries no one does it better than Ken Burns. He's the award-winning filmmaker behind "Baseball," "Jazz," "The Civil War" and now "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson."

Page 3 caught up with Burns last summer during the Television Critic Association's annual press tour to chat about his latest effort on the world's first black heavyweight champion.

Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson's story is about a whole lot more than boxing.
Why Jack Johnson?

Ken Burns:This is more than a movie about a tremendous athlete; it's the story of a man who would not be denied. Jack Johnson was considered a dangerous man. He was an African American determined to live life as he wanted to. So, our story becomes much more, I believe, than a drama about boxing. It's much more than a story about athletic accomplishment. This is a film about race, a subject we have explored in most of the films I've done, where the true feelings of a nation bubble to the surface. This is a story of sex, the subject which sets our sometimes Puritan and prurient nation vibrating in so many disturbing ways. And when that sex involves a black man and a white woman, well, find a safe place under your table until the storm blows over.

Why do you call it "Unforgivable Blackness?"

That's a tag that W.E.B. DuBois, the great black scholar, used. He said that the reason Jack Johnson was so beset by his own country, a country ironically that had only recently reaffirmed that all men were created equal, was because of Johnson's unforgivable blackness.

What did you think of "The Great White Hope?"

I think Hollywood has to necessarily take some shortcuts and combine some characters and soften some things and round some edges. That's what took place there. It's still a biting, gripping story.

What are some of the parallels between Johnson and today's black athletes?

I think that the overt racism that's present in Jack Johnson story -- because he attracts it, because of his defiance of these social norms -- is reflected in various subtle ways in our society. You can also hear Kobe Bryant in this, you know, in the ways in which athletes get into "sexual" trouble.

Where did you get the film footage?

Boxing was the pay-per-view of the day -- that day -- as it is now. People went to the theaters and paid money to see a long fight, which is why some of them were thrown or you carried your opponent through lots of middle rounds when you could have deposed of him early because you wanted to sell more tickets. And so, we found that for events that took place in 1908, 1909, 1910 and 1915 that we have footage of almost every punch thrown -- every second of every round and sometimes from more than one angle.

Miki Turner covers the fusion of sports and entertainment for Page 3 in Los Angeles. She can be reached at