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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘Johnson’ recalls fight against racism

Kevin McDonough United Feature Syndicate

Acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns returns to a familiar theme with his latest four-hour, two-night documentary, “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” (9 p.m., KSPS, concludes Tuesday).

Over the past two decades, in films on topics as diverse as Thomas Jefferson, the Civil War, jazz and baseball, Burns has focused on the theme of race and racism in American history, a topic he considers essential to the American narrative and character.

A larger-than-life character, African American boxer Jack Johnson both embodies and transcends American racial attitudes.

The first two hours of “Johnson” focus on his rise in the ranks of heavyweight boxers and his long and often frustrating attempts to get a succession of white heavyweight champions to accept his challenge.

According to the peculiar mores of the time, racial supremacy could only be ensured if white boxing champions refused to compete with black contenders. And, in a further reversal of logic, the very white boxers who refused to fight Johnson accused him of having a cowardly “yellow” streak.

Johnson’s eventual success in the ring against white heavyweights further incensed his detractors. Upon winning the championship in 1908, a search for a “great white hope” produced a parade of pale palookas that Johnson dispatched with ease.

The series’ final two hours concentrate on Johnson’s demise at the hands of federal agents who arrested him on morals charges. Johnson’s brazen pursuit of happiness, and his taste for fast cars and white women, proved too much for his critics, both black and white.

Johnson eventually would flee the United States for Canada, Europe and Cuba.

While explicitly about race, “Johnson” also explores the incendiary power of film.

Beginning in 1908, all of Johnson’s bouts were filmed. In fact, movie rights to his fights were a big part of his purse.

But the moving image of a black man pummeling a white boxer proved explosive. After Johnson won the heavyweight title, race riots exploded across the country, leaving hundreds dead and inspiring legislation banning the distribution of boxing movies.

“Johnson” does a great job of conveying the brazen originality of its character. But it does an even better job of recalling the brutal prejudice of his times, a fact that makes Jack Johnson’s story all the more audacious and inspiring.

Edward Hermann narrates “The French Revolution” (9 p.m., History), a two-hour look at one of the pivotal social upheavals in history.

“Revolution” combines cinematic re-enactments with informed interviews, sumptuous period art, and a powerful if often intrusive musical soundtrack. A very impressive survey history, “Revolution” features much higher production values than the average History Channel offering.

Omar threatens Audrey to pressure Heller on “24” (9 p.m., Fox).

Is it too early to start the Chloe fan club? What other show would feature such a scowling, eye-rolling and thoroughly miserable heroine? I love her.

Other highlights

Ray needs picking up after on “Everybody Loves Raymond” (9 p.m., CBS).

A wayward guest threatens the casino’s reputation on “Las Vegas” (9 p.m., NBC).

VH1 asks audiences to flash back to the trivia of the recent past in the five-night special “I Love the ‘90s: Part Deux” (9 p.m., VH1, nightly through Friday).

A skeptic takes on Allison on “Medium” (10 p.m., NBC).

Imported domestic advice on the premiere of “Supernanny” (10 p.m., ABC).

Cult choice

The 1964 historical epic “The Fall of the Roman Empire” (7 p.m., TCM sports an all-star cast, including Sophia Loren, Alec Guinness, Stephen Boyd and James Mason.

Series notes

Joe Rogan hosts “Fear Factor” (8 p.m., NBC) … Moms from Minnesota and Tennessee switch domiciles on “Trading Spouses” (8 p.m., Fox) … Moving on up on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition: How’d They Do That?” (8 p.m., ABC) … A “Freaky Friday”-inspired episode of “One on One” (8 p.m., UPN) … The pressures of paternity on “7th Heaven” (8 p.m., WB) … Spencer finds some dangerous talent on “Half & Half” (8:30 p.m., UPN).

Maya quits her job on “Girlfriends” (9 p.m., UPN) … Stressed-out on “Everwood” (9 p.m., WB) … The earth moves for Alan on “Two and a Half Men” (9:30 p.m., CBS) … A clash of styles on “Second Time Around” (9:30 p.m., UPN) … The city goes on alert after a cop is slain on “CSI: Miami” (10 p.m., CBS).

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