In Memoriam 1942 – 2013 “Roger Ebert loved movies.”

RogerEbert.com

Thumb halloween poster

Halloween

Do you know the biggest sin of the new Halloween? It’s just not scary. And that’s one thing you could never say about the original.

Thumb first man

First Man

If you want to get an almost first-person sense of what it felt like to ride a rocket into orbit and beyond, "First Man" is…

Other Reviews
Review Archives
Thumb xbepftvyieurxopaxyzgtgtkwgw

Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

Other Reviews
Great Movie Archives

Reviews

Jack Johnson

  |  

Jim Jacobs' documentary, an Academy Award nominee, is pieced together from surviving newsreel footage of Johnson supplemented by other footage apparently lifted from films of the same general era. It is nearly always fascinating -- old, resurrected newsreel film affects me something like a time machine -- but it doesn't necessarily penetrate to the man Jack Johnson. We are left with the public figure.

The stage and movie versions of "The Great White Hope" have the advantage of fiction; they can pretend to take us inside Jack Johnson's mind and give us a fuller idea of the crushing pressures he experienced. The fiction may not be entirely "true." It is necessarily a creation of actors, writers and directors. But it penetrates to a sort of general truth about black men in America.

Advertisement

"Jack Johnson" can't do that. The newsreel footage of Johnson was limited to his public moments -- the fights, the weigh-ins, the parades and the trips to and from Europe, the United States, Mexico, Cuba and all the other ports of call of his harassed career. We see him smiling, shaking hands, fighting; we don't get the anguish in the middle of the night.

What we do get is the feeling of actuality. Johnson comes across as a tremendously charismatic man, easy and warm and with a sense of humor. There are moments during his Havana fight with Jess Willard that particularly stand out: Willard lands a good blow, and Johnson ironically applauds. Then he spreads his gloves as if taunting Willard to hit again.

Johnson later claimed he threw the fight, and sports experts studied photos of him flat on his back, "knocked out" but apparently conscious and shielding his eyes from the sun. There's much more convincing evidence of a fix in the two earlier moments: Here is a fighter, we feel, who has an unshakable pride and must taunt the "great white hope" before "falling" to him.

The fascinating thing about documentary footage is that you have to exercise these acts of imagination. A documentary can't tell us things the way drama does, by setting everything up and spreading around appropriate dialog. We have to make our own effort to understand the man, and that effort can sometimes lead us closer to him than any fiction could.

Popular Blog Posts

Who do you read? Good Roger, or Bad Roger?

This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...

Netflix’s Terrifying, Moving The Haunting of Hill House is Essential Viewing

A review of Mike Flanagan's new horror series based on the Shirley Jackson novel, The Haunting of Hill House.

Why The Godfather, Part II is the Best of the Trilogy

A look back at one of the best films of all time.

Always Leave 'Em Laughing: Peter Bogdanovich on Buster Keaton, superheroes, television, and the effect of time on movies

Peter Bogdanovich, film historian and filmmaker, talks about Buster Keaton, the subject of his new documentary.

Reveal Comments
comments powered by Disqus