The Great White Hope (1970) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for language, including racist dialogue
Running Time: 103 min.
Cast: James Earl Jones, Jane Alexander, Lou Gilbert, Joe Fluellen, Chester Morris, Robert Webber, Marlene Warfield, R.G. Armstrong, Hal Holbrook, Beah Richards, Moses Gunn, Scatman Crothers (cameo)
Director: Martin Ritt
Screenplay: Howard Sackler (based on his play)
Review published November 4, 2006
Based on Howard Sackler's play, which eventually found its way to Broadway and earned the author a Pulitzer Prize, this film version casts the James Earl Jones (The Last Remake of Beau Geste, Conan the Barbarian) and Jane Alexander (All the President's Men, The Cider House Rules), who also were the stars of the stage production, and their strong performances landed them much-deserved Oscar nominations. Loosely based on the real story of the first Black heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Johnson, The Great White Hope offers up an unflinching look at the racism and persecution that existed (and some might say, still does exist) in the United States for Black men that dared to succeed out of poverty to be the best in the country at anything. It's also a study about the difficulties of a man railing against societal pressures against him and his way of life, despite knowing in his heart that he is right and the rest of the world too rooted in prejudice to realize they are wrong.
In the film, the name of the fighter is changed from Jack Johnson to Jack Jefferson, who finds he is vilified wherever he goes after becoming the nation's first Black heavyweight champion. His opponents are terms as "great white hopes", who hope to gain the title, not just for themselves, but to restore it for their race where they feel it rightfully belongs. What really riles up the white public isn't that the champion is Black, it's that he flaunts it so fragrantly, mocking them for their beliefs, smiling even when taunted, and even marrying a white woman. When the Mann act, which disallows the transport of women to across state lines for "immoral purposes" is misused, Jefferson is sentenced for up to three years for the "crime" for relations with his woman. Jack escapes, leaving the U.S. for Europe in the hopes of continuing his career, but he finds prejudice exists wherever he goes, However, until he is defeated by a white man, he will always get his challengers, as the white promoters are determined to show Jack, and the rest of the world, that Jefferson isn't better than the best white man.
Sackler wrote The Great White Hope almost like a passion play, showing one man's descent into the nadir of human existence because of a public that can't overcome its own fears and hatred in order to learn acceptance, tolerance, and ability to change. Just as white America could not look past the color of Jefferson's skin to see him as just a man, neither could black America, who pinned their hopes, dreams and racial pride on the most successful and popular African-American of his era. However, Jefferson is no Christ figure, as Sackler made sure that he was seen as nothing more than a man, while the racist public are also not shown as pure evil, merely a product of the environment they were living in. although some acts are inexcusable even in that age of racial intolerance.
Watching The Great White Hope today isn't so easy, as the racial epithets and acts of sheer bigotry do make for some very uncomfortable realizations and remembrances of the ugliness of the nation's past. I suppose one of the more ironic twists is that the subject matter of the film was largely considered uncontroversial at the time of its release in 1970, but if it were made today, it would probably be much more dilute in its racial slurs and depictions of a racist society, perhaps to the point where it would have little impact. Due to its volatile content, it is rare nowadays to catch the film on television, but it is definitely worth seeking out for those who can keep an open mind, particularly among those interested in films dealing with heated racial climates.
Regardless of where someone comes down on the subject matter of the film, this is still a solid drama, with two magnificent performances from Jones and Alexander, This is Alexander's debut performance in a theatrically-released production, but it's certainly impressive, Director Martin Ritt is no stranger to controversial dramas about difficult subjects, and while this may not have been as flashy or as well received as similar efforts like Norma Rae and Hud, it definitely is a respectable effort that provokes much more thought than most films that center around the world of boxing, celebrity, and social status.
The Great White Hope is a film more interested in themes of social commentary more than it is about boxing, and in fact, the boxing footage is one of the weaknesses, with poor choreography, unrealistic delivery, and stiff presentation. Don't watch the film if you want to see a film about boxing. Do watch it if you want to see about one man trying desperately to be his own man in a world that hated everything he represented, It's a forceful and memorable film that shows us how far we've come in our society in terms of outward racial hostility, but also, how little we've progressed underneath the politically correct surface when a film featuring a love affair between a black man and white woman is something that continues to merit mentioning whenever it appears to this day.
©2006 Vince Leo