Creating a movie about Johnson that would give the subject justice, even if the story happened to be semi-autobiographical, would seem almost impossible. Yet with a screenplay written by Howard Sackler, direction by Martin Ritt, and ferocious acting by James Earl Jones (and tremendous support by Jane Alexander), The Great White Hope (released in 1970) is one of the most audacious film efforts in history. Only in a few particulars does the movie vary from the actual events of Jack Johnson’s life. The characters name is Jack Jefferson (James Earl Jones) rather than Johnson. Jack Johnson’s first wife committed suicide four years before he lost the championship belt. In the movie, his white wife, Eleanor (Jane Alexander), commits suicide weeks before Jefferson loses the championship belt. And the big fight only lasts fourteen rounds in the movie while in actuality it was twenty-six rounds.
The Great White Hope begins with Jack Jefferson just returning from Australia after winning the championship. His manager, Goldie (Lou Gilbert), then sets up a fight between Jefferson and Frank Brady (Larry Pennell), the former champion who the white world believes is invincible. (Brady is obviously a fictional representation of the great fighter, James J. Jeffries.) Jack demolishes Brady and a shocked public demands that a “great white hope” be found that can dethrone the uppity black man. Jack’s relationship to Eleanor, a white woman, is also shocking to the public. Even a great black writer (a fictional Booker T. Washington) sides with the white authorities because he feels that Jack and his behavior is an embarrassment to the black race.
The authorities catch Jack and Eleanor vacationing in a cabin, and Jack is arrested for violating the Mann Act. Jack flees to England where he is not allowed to fight. He then flees to Paris and to Budapest, and almost goes broke because none of his opponents prove to be suitable contenders to generate any interest. With the onset of World War I, Jack then is forced to go to Mexico and live and train on scraps of food. The only fight offer that is made to Jack is a fight with a big Kansan (a fictional Jess Willard), but the fight will only be forthcoming if Jack agrees to throw the fight. Eleanor, who begins to crack under the pressure of this forced isolation, pleads with Jack to throw the fight. Jack, feeling betrayed, badly berates her to the point that she leaves and commits suicide by throwing herself into a well. Jack then agrees to throw the fight. However, Jack after taking a few rounds of pummeling by the clumsy Kansan, changes his mind. He sees the gloating faces of the white fans, former boxers and boxing establishment, and he starts putting up a real fight. Unfortunately, the effort finally wears him out, his tall opponent knocks him out, and Jack is left wondering if the whole effort was really worth it.
I agree with Leonard Maltin (one of the few times I have ever agreed) that the ending of the movie seems to have been forced. Sackler tried so hard to muddy the circumstances of the championship bout as to whether it was thrown, that we can’t really believe his screenplay version. (Sackler and Ritt seemed to suggest that the fight was both thrown and not really thrown.) Fortunately, Jones does such a good job of acting that the scene almost becomes believable. Jones appears angry and then exhausted and then desperate. The Great White Hope, though much more than a “boxing story,” actually contains some of the most convincing boxing scenes ever contained in a movie. A few movie critics, who may have never observed a real boxing match in their lives, managed to get this wrong. Unlike so many boxing movies, the fight scenes are never overstated. I’d ask the critics to compare the footage of fights involving Jack Johnson to this movie and I think they will see the resemblance. (The reactions of the crowd and the dull roars of disapproval are even more startling similar. The expensive seats attended at most Johnson fights were made up of rich white “gentlemen” and so Johnson was usually met with a chorus of jeers.) Most of the fight scenes we see of actual fights are limited to highlights from when an opponent has just been knocked out. Most of the choreographed fight scenes we see in movies are bogus. And most of the action in a typical boxing match is actually more methodical than spectacular. The fight scenes in The Great White Hope for this reason are far superior to those in Raging Bull, where we are to believe that Jake La Motta won the title by being a bloodthirsty psychopath.
The Great White Hope was treated negatively by some of the major newspapers upon its release. Vincent Canby reviewed the movie for The New York Times and in dismissing it comes close to sounding provincial. Canby, a beloved phenomenon to his pampered readership, worked for the Times for over thirty years and almost never saw a movie he didn’t like. His reaction to this movie seems out of character. He refers to The Great White Hope as “one of those liberal, well-meaning, fervently uncontroversial works that pretend to tackle contemporary problems by finding analogies at a safe remove in history.” This is particularly disconcerting from a reviewer who just about glowed over movies like Born Free and Love Story. I guess I never thought of using the term “liberal” to either describe or denigrate this movie, and I’m not sure Canby is all that clear about the use of the term either. Canby felt the white characters (outside of Eleanor) were all prototypes for evil, and the black characters were prototypes for earthy and sincere human beings. This view fails to take into account the role that James Earl Jones plays as the character of Jack Jefferson, as Jefferson is not easily categorized or stereotyped. “Uncontroversial” is also a term that Canby uses vaguely. Jack Jefferson, as did Jack Johnson, makes almost everyone, black and white, uncomfortable with his uncompromising demand to be left alone to be himself. In a less controversial work, we wouldn’t have such mixed feelings about the movie’s lead character.
When speaking of a “safe remove in history,” we are now far enough away from the time that this New York Times' review was written (October 12, 1970) that we can judge Canby to have been wrong. Canby believed society had progressed much more than it had at this point. Canby seemed to think that we should now move onto to other “really controversial issues” such as “the war, the draft, the Black Muslims, black separatism, and all those other things that make Ali such a thorny public person today.” Unfortunately, the racism that Jack Johnson faced was not so far removed, and even Ali heavily identified with Jack Johnson the boxer and Jack Jefferson the character. The Mann Act was still being applied to blacks in the 1960s. Black men who looked at white women were still being lynched. And Jack Johnson, the first athlete to truly break the color barrier, remains an unsettling character. Johnson is not honored today like Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Tiger Woods or Muhammad Ali. I’m not sure what analogies Canby was speaking of as being safely in the past because the racism that Johnson faced was well documented and presented accurately in The Great White Hope, and much of that racism is still present. No doubt, Jefferson was not an angel in the movie, and I think this offended Canby. Canby, in looking at the movie as a simple sociological treatise and not looking deeper into the depths of the lead character, failed to see that Jefferson could not have been any different than he was under these circumstances. This is especially true for him to have accomplished what he did - hold onto the championship for seven years while being universally hated.
Canby seems to think Jefferson would have been greater had he overtly embraced some ideology, but to do this would have meant that Jefferson could not have remained his own man. As a society, we are too in love with people who talk piously about their devotion to a particular cause. That devotion is the price men pay for their sense of belonging. Jefferson did not want his identification with a particular race to define him, and therefore he did not belong to anyone. Before his fight with Frank Brady, a preacher wanted to pray for Jack’s victory so that black men could have a reason to feel good about them selves. Jack refused to pray with them. He said that if they didn’t already have self-respect, there was nothing that his victory could do to help them gain it.
The Great White Hope is a movie about many things including race relations, alienation, and our futile strivings for greatness. It certainly is not a “well-meaning” or “uncontroversial” movie designed to make us feel good. The movie, like its main character, is certainly flawed. However, it’s not so flawed that we should fail to take it seriously.
© Robert S. Miller 2007