Any piece of sports television that gives us the entire two minutes and four seconds of the second Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight is worth watching, if for that alone. But "Black Champions," a three-part William Miles documentary that airs on public television on successive Wednesday nights beginning tonight at 9, is more than just a string of ancient film clips.
So often, sports documentaries hit you with tidbits of new information and move on; "Champions" is more consistently educational, though the interviews aren't nearly as forceful as the pictures.
In the first part -- "Who Will Wear the Crown?" -- we learn that Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, read Victor Hugo and Shakespeare and was a classical musician. We also are told that Pancho Villa tried to promote the Johnson-Jess Willard bout, perhaps the greatest of the first half-century; and that three members of the 1936 U.S. Olympic relay team competing in Berlin (two black, one Jewish) were removed by the U.S. coaches, perhaps as a result of Hitler's pressure. In Part 2 -- "New Times: The Integration of American Sports -- we learn that Althea Gibson played a fierce serve-and-volley game long before Martina Navratilova arrived on the scene.
The entire tone of the first two segments is understated, from the distinguished narration of Ron Foster to the subtle mention that some of Jackie Robinson's white teammates didn't like him. In fact, it might be over-understated. Miles brings us an incredible collection of black champions, including 91-year-old William Johnson, the former Negro Leaguer; Mack Robinson, the 1936 Olympic track medalist and Jackie's older brother; Pop Gates, the Harlem Globetrotter who never was allowed to play in the National Basketball Association; and Floyd Patterson, the former heavyweight champion.
Unfortunately, they are allowed to talk mostly about their sports, how many hours they practiced, what it took to become a champion -- stuff we can read about any time from today's jock-celebrities. We're left wondering whether William Johnson is bitter about playing six games in four days and having to sleep on the ground after being told "No niggers allowed." We're left to wonder what Mack Robinson really thought when he and Marty Glickman were booted off the 1936 relay team. The element of anger is missing, and we wonder why.
But Miles provides every visual image possible. The film -- especially the pre-World War I clips of Jack Johnson fighting Tommy Burns (the first integrated fight) and Jess Willard -- are staggering. And for many, seeing the entire Louis-Schmeling fight will be a first. There is even a moment where a pudgy Pancho Villa poses for the birdie. And the still shots of Negro League players satisfy a curiosity about people we've heard of but in many cases have never seen.
The third part of "Champions" -- "Looking for Tomorrow: Black Athletes and the Sporting Life" -- is a harder-hitting look at the modern pressures of competition. But it is less fascinating, because we see and hear from these people (Arthur Ashe, John Thompson, Ray Leonard and Lee Elder, among others) almost every day.
Miles said he initially wanted to do this project because he was riding a bus one day during Black History Month and heard a woman try to explain to her young son who Jackie Robinson was. Startled, he realized that black champions who were out of sight were also long out of mind. Joe DiMaggio may do Mr. Coffee commercials; not so for Roy Campanella.
"They were being forgotten too fast," Miles said. For several hours, at least, all that is changed.