Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema

By Dan Streible | Go to book overview

7 Jack Johnson’s Decline
The Prizefight Film Ban, 1911–1915

The first confiscation of prize-fight moving-picture films, the
interstate shipment or importation of which is forbidden by a
Federal law passed June 30, was made today in the seizure of 2400
feet of films picturing the Jeffries-Johnson and Gans-Herman fights.
The films were found in the baggage of O.D. Harter, a theatrical
promoter. … Harter said he had exhibited the pictures in the Orient
and had not learned of the passage of the law.

“Seize Prize-Fight Films,” Los Angeles Times, September 19, 1912

Jack Johnson’s three title fights between 1908 and 1910 made him an international celebrity. The three resulting fight pictures added to his fame and wealth. With the Johnson-Jeffries Fight, the visibility and influence of the genre peaked. Yet the reaction to the film led to the demise of prizefight films in the United States. During the five years that followed, the films and Johnson himself met with censure and, finally, banishment.


THE BEGINNING OF JOHNSON’S DECLINE

The victory over Jim Jeffries and its repetition on movie screens marked a high point in Jack Johnson’s career, bolstering his pugilistic reputation and his status in the African American community. Although most black audiences were prevented from celebrating screenings of the Johnson-Jeffries Fight, they lionized the champion. Black leaders, however, had been careful to separate pride in Johnson’s accomplishment from an endorsement of Johnson himself. After 1910, support for Johnson faded. Subsequent fight pictures were received quite differently as the fighter became increasingly vilified.

As early as March 1910, the Afro-American Ledger qualified its appraisal of Johnson, saying that “the race which in a large measure is proud of him is not altogether pleased at the pace he is going.”1 Reports of his fast living and run-ins with the law were thought to adversely affect the environment in which all African Americans lived. Johnson brushed off scrapes with the law and flaunted the money with which he paid fines. In March 1911 he

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