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Imagine a sportsman who combined the insouciant virtuosity of Usain Bolt and the eccentric, subversive brilliance of Eric Cantona. Then imagine him operating in the context of the poisonous racial politics of early 20th-century America. And there you have Jack Johnson who, this documentary implies, might well have been one of the most badass edge walkers ever to grace the earth.
This fearsomely comprehensive documentary explores, at intimidating length, Johnson’s transgressive genius. He battered ‘great white hopes’ relentlessly. He played the fiddle, read history and was an inventor in his spare time. And he consorted with white women, explaining the appeal of black men with the deathless phrase: ‘We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts.’ As with many PBS documentaries, this could do with a little trimming and shaping. But eventually, Johnson’s story is so remarkable that it transcends any doubts about the delivery format. Superb.