Sports

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.)

Advertisement

NEXT: Burn After Reading Redirect

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. If you have never seen the PBS Jack Johnson documentary, I highly recommend it. Johnson was a fascinating guy. Self-destructive as hell, but also his own man and someone worthy of respect for reasons beyond his boxing ability, which was formidable. Johnson was a heavyweight Floyd Mayweather. You just couldn’t it the guy.

    It is a good thing Johnson was pardoned before that racist Trump took office. Right?

    1. I’ve just seen the Martin Ritt movie, which I found underwhelming.

      1. The Miles Davis album that was made for the film was pretty solid apart from the movie.

      2. Yeah it is. And that is a shame because James Earl Jones was born to play Jack Johnson. Too bad, they couldn’t put him in a better movie. I think the PBS documentary might be a Ken Burns one. But don’t let that put you off. It is really good.

        1. James Earl Jones was too busy playing that guy who turned into a snake.

          1. OK, I’ll keep my eye open for the PBS film, even if it’s by Ken Burns.

            And yeah, the Miles Davis album is pretty good. If you click on the album cover in the post, it’ll take you to a Vimeo page where you can hear it.

            1. The PBS film is great.

              The one thing that sticks in my mind is Jack London’s particularly vicious racial comments about him. They are brilliant writing but awful nevertheless. London saw absolutely no redeeming features about “the negro race.”

              1. Nor any other race apparently. I recently watched a Youtube video about “White Fang”. London seemed to see nothing except the superiority of the white race.

                1. apparently, according to Jack London even dogs knew that whites were superior.

                    1. Why do you think they’re called “dog whistles”?

                    2. “London seemed to see nothing except the superiority of the white race.”

                      Socialists liked Jack London though. He has that going for him.

  2. That’s a pretty flimsy comparison between Jack Johnson being charged by the government for violating the onerous Mann Act under racially charged motives and football players being required by their employer to stop alienating consumers and hurting their bottom line.

    Turns out all that needed to happen for Reason to suddenly care about private acts of censorship was for that censorship to be turned against the Left. Who would have expected this other than literally everyone?

    1. Also, Jack Johnson was a bonafide bad ass. There is a great PBS documentary on Johnson called “Unforgivable Blackness”

    2. That’s a pretty flimsy comparison between Jack Johnson being charged by the government for violating the onerous Mann Act under racially charged motives and football players being required by their employer to stop alienating consumers and hurting their bottom line.

      Are you actually under the impression that this post compares the legal persecution of Johnson to the rule change at the NFL, or are you just trolling?

      1. I suppose I’m functionally illiterate. I read the last paragraph wrong.

        You should still see the PBS documentary

    3. I’m also not entirely certain the call of ‘not offended’ is correct. Not only is Kaepernick’s gesture exceedingly weak in comparison, the arguable ‘persecution’ isn’t really comparable either. There’s an old line about never meeting one’s heroes. Lots of Lefties likes to assume that their predecessors would’ve loved what they’re doing. Which is weird because they turn on each other every decade or so.

  3. The president has posthumously pardoned Jack Johnson.

    “The president”. Wait a minute, you mean THIS president? As in Donald TJ. rump, the racist who hates black people according to you guys and all your JournoList buddies???

    Seems like a pretty weird thing for the most evil man in America to do, doesn’t it?

    1. Hey, just one pussy grabber doing a solid for another, right. 🙂

      1. On a more serious note, I actually don’t recall that any Hit’n’runners being particularly critical of Trump about race other than calling him out over the tone deafness of his comments on the Charlotte Protests.

        Reason’s main complaints against Trump are over trade and immigration policy.

        1. Except the criticism of his more restrictionist immigration policy is based on an accusation of racial animosity.

          1. Well, it’s most certainly true that it’s based on the idea that “they’re not like us.”

            Australia and Canada both handle that particular problem by filtering immigrants on the basis of education and job skills. They admit large numbers of people (almost twice as many now proportionately to the USA) They pretty much just say we don’t care what race or color you are, we just won’t let you in if you are not like us.

        2. Norms, man, Trump violates norms. That’s downright counter-revolutionary!

          1. On this, we agree.

            Should we sing Kumbaya together? 🙂

        1. Someone gets it.

    2. Seems like a pretty weird thing for the most evil man in America to do, doesn’t it?

      Is it really all that weird to make an empty symbolic gesture that benefits literally no one other than the Johnson descendants?

  4. “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery or for any other immoral purpose.”

    Trafficking.

    1. Like gun control, sex trafficking was a crime invented to control black people. In this case, to keep the Negros from corrupting the white women.

      Funny how every law the Progressives love seems to have started with the desire to oppress and control blacks.

      1. Crazy is the new Black. The riots of the 1960’s convinced Democrats to narrow their target population.

      2. Actually, the Progressives though that blacks could be civilized, just as they thought that Indians and poor whites could be.

        By civilized, of course, what they meant was trained to conform to standards embodied by the western european ideals of the enlightenment including the protestant work ethic, as well as western values of morality etc.

        This meant “teaching the geechee out of the negro”, “killing the Indian to save the man”, “depapifying the children of immigrants from catholic countries” and various other “improvements” imposed on the “disadvantaged. That is why the Progressives felt they had to take over and reorganize education systems.

        IOW, it pretty much meant turning blacks, Indians, Italians, rural and southern whites and jews into WASPS. Needless to say, many people from these groups kicked at this assault on their cultural norms and made vague accusations about extermination attempts. I suppose if you think your culture defines you it is reasonable to assume that anyone trying to eliminate that culture is trying to eliminate you.

        1. In fact, diversity, was never a Progressive value. They above all sought to enforce conformity namely conformity to their view of the future.

          1. Yuri Bezmenov was right! He talks about subversion, and a group like Progressives who already want conformity are an easy target for Communist subversion, and we all know Communists are all about conformity.

  5. From the first link:

    In a television interview, Mr. Obama’s attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., had also raised the fact there was a history of domestic violence accusations against Johnson.

    Given as one of the reasons why Obama’s Justice Dept recommended against a pardon for Jack Johnson.

    Uh, OK, I guess. I know how I feel about that statement but I can’t seem to find the words to express just what a contemptible POS Eric H. Holder Jr is.

  6. “Were you wondering how Johnson would feel…”

    No, I was not and do not see how it possibly matters. Johnson was in an individual sport, not the employee of a team. He could risk his own potential income if he wanted to, like any other entrepreneur.

    1. Yes. And Johnson was a lot of things but he was not a whiner. If Johnson had been told to do this and didn’t want to, he would have said screw it an walked away. He would not have taken the money and then bitched about how oppressed he felt.

    2. Not only that but given Johnson’s prosecution under a dubious law passed for racist reasons, I figure he had much more of a justifiable grievance than ~99.99999% of the kneeling NFL players.

  7. Anyway, what’s the deal with posthumous pardons? Good idea, or too little too late?

  8. They carry great symbolic meaning.

    Linda Haywood, a woman in Chicago who traces her lineage to Johnson, also has campaigned for him for years and attended the Oval Office ceremony.

    …..

    Ms. Haywood thanked the president as well, saying the pardon was a long time coming.

    “I am overwhelmed,” she said, adding that her family had been “deeply shamed that my uncle went to prison” and regretted that older relatives had not lived to see this day.

    “I appreciate you rewriting history,” Ms. Haywood said. “My family can go forward knowing the pain and the shame has been replaced.”

    OTOH (from the same link – the NYT story at the beginning of the post) there are some people who will never be satisfied:

    “This, isolated, is a good gesture to right a miscarriage of justice,” said Stefanie Brown James, a Democratic political consultant. “However, there are a lot of current, modern-day issues that he could address as the living president that he chooses not to. I’m just personally tired of symbolism.”

    1. Reply to Eidde|5.25.18 @ 1:55PM

    2. I’m just personally tired of symbolism.

      Especially when it’s not from the right people. If it had been a Democratic President, would she still complain?

      I hate politicians. Just despise them.

      1. If it had been a Democratic President, would she still complain?

        Well, yeah, that was my point.

        If you RTFA you will find that the person who found this the most significant was someone who’s ‘family had been “deeply shamed that my uncle went to prison”.’

        From what I can tell about Trump, “family” is an idea that resonates very strongly with him and I think he understands that it resonates strongly with Americans in general.

  9. Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, was convicted in 1913 of violating the Mann Act

    Another, more accurate way to say this would be that he was was convicted in 1913 of violating the Mann Act which was specifically created to charge Jack Johnson with it.

  10. 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.

    Shades of PGP!

    And just as I wondered whether the OCR book was just a plausible cover for actual text being sent illegally, so I wonder if the cross-border filming was just a plausible cover for transporting the film illegally into the US. Was the 1912 film technology up to the task of making a viewable movie?

    1. >>import the images without actually importing the film

      I love that kind of disturbing-of-poop.

    2. I wonder if the cross-border filming was just a plausible cover for transporting the film illegally into the US.

      That’s what I was trying to get at, maybe a little too opaquely, when I wrote “or, at least, to have a plausible-sounding story once the movie turned up in New York.”

      1. I knew that, I was hoping there might be definitive knowledge safely disseminated at this late date 🙂

        1. And I should have said that you were hinting at it, I guess my comment was at least as opaque as yours, probably more so!

  11. ‘Bout damn time. Johnson’s injustice has been a stain.

    1. Well, you know Obama would have pardoned him if only he hadn’t been a wife beater.

      It’s tough keeping a political constituency together.

  12. “”The president has posthumously pardoned Jack Johnson””

    It’s crazy that our own Great White Hope, Bill Clinton, or our own Great Black Hope, Barack Obama, never bothered to pardon Jack Johnson. Instead it was the great Rethuglican twittertwat Trump who pardoned him.

    If Democrats are still confused as to why Democrats just couldn’t build up enough excitement to actually go out and vote for a Democrat in 2016, the answer is that Democrat Party values are just hollow facades. NOT that I am praising Trump. It’s just that as a stopped clocked he is accidentally right twice a day.

    1. See above:

      Obama would have pardoned him if only he hadn’t been a wife beater.

    2. When a blind squirrel finds that many nuts maybe, really he can see real good.

  13. They need to keep their hands up. Was that not the thing back then? A boxer today would destroy both of them in the ring.

  14. I really like reading through a post that can make people think. Also, many thanks for permitting me to comment! Nicely, garageband for windows is an audio mixing program which was originally designed for iOS devices by Apple.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.