Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema

By Dan Streible | Go to book overview

6 Jack Johnson Films
Black Exhibition and White
Suppression, 1908–1910

[Whether the public will ever see the Johnson-Jeffries fight pictures]
depends upon the opinions of shocked “schoolmarms,” elated negro
coalheavers, princes of the Church, impassioned sporting gentlemen,
conscientious Southern governors, tolerant Northern mayors,
filmmakers on the scent of a fortune, newspapers ravenous with the
summer news famine and other voices of the people, each of which
is yelling in a different key. … Every human motive that has made
for war and discord from the times of Jacob until today is tangled up
in the skein of influences that will determine whether the pictures
are shown.

                                                 J.B., JR. “Will You Ever See Those Fight Pictures? That Depends,”
                                                    New York Tribune, July 10, 1910

Until recently, historians of early cinema neglected African American film culture. Considerations of movies and race typically began with the racist landmark The Birth of a Nation (1915). Most of the recent studies of African American cinema take the productions of Oscar Micheaux as their starting point. Less has been written about its production, exhibition, and reception before 1915—Jacqueline Najuma Stewart’s Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (2005) being the stellar corrective.1

Fight pictures featuring the controversial heavyweight champion Jack Johnson serve as an entree into the social history of early black filmgoing. His screen presence made him, in essence, the first black movie star. In considering how black, white, and interracial audiences saw the Johnson pictures, we must outline the practices of exhibitors. For Johnson and other black fighters wanting access to the ring, as well as for African American filmgoers seeking pictures of their fights, the color line was a pernicious barrier. Jack Johnson broke boxing’s color line but not that of the movie theater. Yet, although the continuing segregation of theatrical space was a constant reminder of coercion, the cinematic image of Johnson projected large on the screen challenged the basis of that segregation.

The reception of the Johnson films predictably divided along racial lines: black communities generally treated screenings as an opportunity

-195-

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