The Great White Hope (1970)
The phrase ‘great white hope’ was coined in response to the feats of one man. It was appropriately on Boxing Day 1908 that Jack Johnson became the first black World Heavyweight Champion. From that point on the powers that be were determined to wrest the belt from his control. As the film's tagline so aptly summed it up… “He could beat any white man in the world. He just couldn’t beat all of them”.
“I ain’t gonna fight no dinge”, retired champion Frank Brady emphatically proclaims in the biopic's opening line. Yet when he does he, like many other white boxers before him, is soundly beaten by the film's fictionalised version of Johnson, Jack Jefferson. Unable to defeat him in the ring, various authorities combine to score victory away from the ring, targeting his relationship with white woman Eleanor.
Though the film’s stage origins are obvious at times, director Martin Ritt embraces the intimacy, revelling in the majesty of the performances and written word. Trimming his three and a half-hour play down to 143 minutes for the screen, Howard Sackler amplifies the story’s love interest. As Eleanor, Jane Alexander in her film debut miraculously avoids being overshadowed by James Earl Jones. Initially meek and mild in an environment she is not entirely comfortable with, her denunciation of Hal Holbrook’s district attorney deliciously reveals the woman’s true mettle, making her fate all the more tragic.
Like Alexander, Jones recreates the role he originated on stage for the screen. It is an extraordinarily powerful performance, the like of which is rarely captured on film. One can sense the pent-up rage he hides behind his painted-on smile as he humours those he feels contempt for. When asked by a reporter if he is the great black hope, Jefferson at first jokes that he’s black and he’s hoping, before letting his true feelings escape. “I ain't fighting for no race, I ain't redeeming nobody. My mama told me Mr. Lincoln done that. Ain't that why you shot him?”
Upon winning the title from Johnson’s victor, Jack Dempsey announced that he would renew the colour line and only fight white boxers. It would be more than 20 years before another black boxer, Joe Louis, was given the chance to become World Heavyweight Champion.
as Jack Jefferson (Jack Johnson)
as Brady (James J. Jeffries)
as The Kid (Jess Willard)
Though The Great White Hope is a thinly veiled account of the life of Jack Johnson, it remains a work of fiction and as such, any comparison between ‘reel and real’ is inapplicable. Nevertheless, it does open with the statement ‘much of what follows is true’.
The character of Eleanor Bachman is an amalgamation of two of Johnson’s wives, Etta Duryea and Lucille Cameron.
No mention is made of Johnson’s limited film career.