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Review: The Great White Hope (1970)

The Great White Hope (1970)

Directed by: Martin Ritt

Premise: Based on the life of boxer Jack Johnson. When an African American boxer (James Earl Jones), wins the heavyweight championship belt in 1910 he becomes the target of racist elements in American culture who try to get at him through his relationship with a white woman (Jane Alexander).

What Works: There is a tendency to think about the past as a simpler time in which people were more innocent. Movies sometimes reinforce this, particularly Hollywood films of the studio era. Movies of the 1940s through the early 60s were made under the Production Code Administration, which put certain images, words, and themes off limits to Hollywood filmmakers. For that reason, depictions of racism and other forms of intolerance and social discontent were rare in mainstream American cinema of that time. The Great White Hope is an example of a movie that could only be made after the Production Code had been abandoned but it is also a movie about the past in which history and the people in it are not softened by nostalgia or naiveté. Jack Jefferson, who is a fictionalized version of real life boxer Jack Johnson, is a complex character living in a complex world and the filmmakers of The Great White Hope embrace that complexity. Even recent pictures about race and sports such as Remember the Titans and The Blind Side tend to present intolerance as a social aberration that is easily defeated and those who struggle against it as unquestionably virtuous. The crew behind this film resists the hagiographic tendencies that bedevil biographical movies. The Great White Hope sets up Jefferson as a sympathetic underdog character but he is also a deeply flawed man who is characterized by hubris and an overabundance of pride. That tension between his underdog status and his conceited nature makes Jefferson a terrific character to build a story around and the movie challenges racism while also questioning the mythic status often afforded to sports legends. In that respect, The Great White Hope is more like a show business story like The Doors and Ray in which a talented individual struggles to hold onto his own identity amid the demands of celebrity. James Earl Jones plays Jack Jefferson and it is an incredible performance. Jones does not shy away from the more difficult aspects of the character and there are often subtle moments in his performance that reveal the complex interplay of his pride, his racial identity, and his love/hate relationship with the crowds who watched him fight. The film also has a terrific performance by Jane Alexander as Jefferson’s other half. Although the film does not spend a great deal of time on her character she is a lot more fleshed out than many women of contemporary films as she copes with racism and sexism.  

What Doesn’t: Although The Great White Hope is the story of a boxer there is very little boxing in it. Like the original Rocky, this is really a movie about characters and their struggles outside the ring so viewers who come to the picture expecting an exciting, action oriented sports story with boxing clichés won’t find what they are looking for. The Great White Hope may be a strange viewing experience for younger audiences. The picture was released in 1970, coming just after the major victories of the civil rights movement but well before before racial integration and the sexual revolution normalized miscegenation. For that reason the pessimistic point of view of the movie may come across quite dated to a contemporary audience.

DVD extras: None.

Bottom Line: The Great White Hope is even now a challenging movie in the way that it presents issues like celebrity and race. The movie asks a lot of the audience but viewers are rewarded by a stunning central performance by James Earl Jones and a story that is as thoughtful as it is entertaining. Viewers who enjoy The Great White Hope are also recommended to seek out the documentary film Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.

Episode: #436 (April 28, 2013)