The Great White Hope (1970)

MARTIN RITT

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5

USA, 1970. . Screenplay by , based on his play. Cinematography by . Produced by Lawrence Turman. Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

Howard Sackler’s stage play based on the true story of boxing Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson is adapted to the screen as a powerful vehicle for its leads, particularly showing off a magnificent performance by . He plays the slightly renamed Jack Jefferson, whose success in the ring puts him on the path to become the first African American to take the champion belt which, for the sport’s promoters, is something they must prevent.

After the previous year’s now-retired winner is convinced to get back in the game and defend his title, the crowds are devastated that their Great White Hope loses to Jefferson, and their vicious racism is not in any way dampened down in director Martin Ritt’s presentation of them. Jefferson maintains a smile on his face through all his troubles, responding with good-natured humour no matter what bigoted vitriol comes his way, but the challenges he puts before a society not willing to let him live his life his own way threaten his forcefully positive attitude as his story continues forward.

Jefferson marries a white woman named Eleanor Bachman (, who like Jones won a Tony for her performance in the original play), and attacking this relationship is how the boxing world takes revenge on Jefferson’s win, throwing the Mann Act at him and forcing him to leave the country to avoid prison. England rejects him almost immediately on arrival, so the couple continues to Paris and then Budapest where they are reduced to performing Uncle Tom’s Cabin-themed skits before the first World War breaks out and prompts them on to Mexico.

In Juarez, Jefferson is asked to fight another white boxer vying for the Heavyweight Championship, and offered a reduced prison sentence if he intentionally throws the fight and hands his belt back to a white man. Having by this point descended into miserable chaos with Eleanor and with few options left to him as a fugitive from the law, our hero takes the easiest road for himself, but at some point during his climactic match is inspired to defend his dignity one last time.

Ritt made a series of films in the seventies aimed at exposing America’s poor track record with social justice and this, while a terrific opportunity to see two legendary stage performances recorded on film forever, is not the strongest of them. Having already seen his later films Sounder, The Front and Norma Rae makes this feel limited in its scope by comparison, it’s easy to see which scenes are from the play and what has been invented to open things out, but there’s none of the investigation of themes that happens on the stage in the lengthy set pieces that centre the action in one location.

Sackler’s well-intentioned desire to sum up the need for the Civil Rights activism that has been a hot topic for a number of years at this point has him fictionalize Johnson’s story to the point of removing all of his flaws, forcing Jones to look in the script for a three-dimensional character as much torn down by his own hubris as by the intolerance of the world around him (in reality, the Mann Act was used against Johnson for a different woman who was not his wife, and Etta Terry Duryea, upon whom Eleanor’s character is based, did not reach the end of her journey solely because of lost ideals).

Alexander is marvelous as a woman who believes as much in the possibility of creating a new world as her husband does before her spirit is broken, the scene in which she calls as the Chicago District Attorney a “slimy, two-bit, no-dick mothergrabber” is some of the best acting of her entire career, and she caps it off with a magnificent final bout with her co-star that reminds us of the human struggle that is so much more dangerous than what occurs in a boxing ring.

Jones earned his sole Academy Award nomination for his performance before going on to enjoy the career for which he is still venerated and admired, though he rarely had as rich and central a role in a feature film ever again. For all the compromises made by the script, he makes sure that we can always see the uphill battle that is occurring behind his proud and defiant eyes, preventing us from taking even the slightest pleasure, even in an appreciation of ironic drama, in his downfall.

Academy Award Nominations: Best Actor (James Earl Jones); Best Actress (Jane Alexander)

Golden Globe Award: Most Promising Newcomer-Male (James Earl Jones)
Nominations: Best Actor-Drama (James Earl Jones); Most Promising Newcomer-Female (Jane Alexander)

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