Celebrated documentary film maker Ken Burns has extensive experience with battles. His expansive, 11-hour documentary on the Civil War earned him two Emmy Awards and broke viewership records for public television. In his newest project, Burns also tells the story of a battle — but this time the weapons are boxing gloves and clenched fists instead of rifles and bayonets.
In a Pierson College Master’s Tea Tuesday, Burns showed clips from his new documentary about boxer Jack Johnson and shared his views on the importance of race in American history to over 100 students and community members.
“You can’t ask a question about American history without bringing up the question of race,” Burns said.
Burns expounded upon the role of race in American history, talking about the role of blacks in important cultural movements such as the Civil War, jazz music and baseball — all topics that Burns has covered in his documentaries.
“African Americans are at the burning center of our history,” Burns said. “They are central to the question of who we are.”
In his newest documentary, titled “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” Burns tells the story of Johnson, the first black man to claim the title of heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Johnson captured the attention of the nation when he defeated former boxing champion Jim Jeffries in a boxing match in 1910, dubbed “the Battle of the Century,” which galvanized racial tension and caused race riots throughout the United States.
Owning nightclubs, frequenting brothels usually reserved solely for white men and traveling the world to compete in boxing matches, Johnson lived an ostentatious lifestyle at the turn of the century — an era in which Burns said blacks were perceived as a danger to the natural order.
“He was the original player with his bling-bling, fancy clothes and fancy cribs,” Burns said. “He’s the real deal. No one risks anything acting that way nowadays nearly as much as Jack Johnson did.”
Burns showed clips from the Johnson documentary, which he said has already received 400 strong reviews and the most positive reception Burns has had for any of his films.
Responding to student questions about history’s relevance to current events, Burns warned against the “great arrogance” of thinking that society, with the passage of time, has learned from its mistakes. He related a statistic claiming that 40 percent of graduating high school seniors think that the United States allied itself with Nazi Germany during World War II to fight off the Russians. He also pointed to the current state of race relations in America, questioning how the dynamics of the Kobe Bryant and O.J. Simpson trials would have changed if race was not a factor.
Several students said they were impressed with Burns’ candid discussion.
“I thought he was a brilliant speaker and delivered his presentation with the same passion that he puts into his films,” Michael Murray ’08 said.
Burns’ next project is a documentary examining the effect of World War II on four different communities scattered across the United States. He said he already has his projects for the next 10 years planned out.
“If I lived for 1,000 years, I would not run out of stories to tell,” Burns said.
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