When the Censors Came for Jack Johnson's Fight Films

Friday A/V Club: The boxer who just got a posthumous presidential pardon was a central figure in one of the first battles over movie censorship.


The president has posthumously pardoned Jack Johnson. Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, was convicted in 1913 of violating the Mann Act, which prohibited the interstate transport of "any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery or for any other immoral purpose." More specifically, he crossed state lines with a white girlfriend. Racists resented Johnson's victories in the ring, they resented his refusal to be modest about his success, they resented his wealth, and they resented the fact that he slept with white women. So they used one of the Progressive Era's most notorious "moral reform" laws to punish him.

But they didn't just target Johnson himself. The boxer also became a central figure in one of the earliest battles over movie censorship.

After Johnson's 1910 victory over James J. Jeffries (the so-called "great white hope"), anti-black and anti-boxing crusaders blocked local screenings of a film that showed the match. In 1912, citing the same motion picture, Congress passed the Sims Act, which banned the transport of fight films over state lines. That law led in turn to one of the strangest episodes in film history.

In 1916, a group brought a film of Johnson's recent fight against Jess Willard to a tent erected on the boundary separating New York from Quebec. They then projected the movie from Canada onto a screen on the U.S. side of the border, where it was rephotographed on American soil. The idea was to import the images without actually importing the film—or, at least, to have a plausible-sounding story once the movie turned up in New York.

Today you need no such feints to see the film. The Johnson-Willard fight is on YouTube, and I have embedded it here:

Willard won that one. Those of you who want to see Johnson win a contest can check out some highlights from his fight with Jeffries below. I unfortunately can't find the full film of that match online, so this edit (with narration added decades later) will have to do:

By the way: Were you wondering how Johnson would feel about the other big sports-and-politics story of the week—the NFL's new rules against kneeling in protest during the national anthem? In 1913, chased out of America and living in exile, Johnson "refused to perform under an American flag," according to a report quoted in Thomas Hietala's book The Fight of the Century. "He directed that it be removed and replaced by a French flag." I have a feeling that Colin Kaepernick's gesture wouldn't offend him.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)