Seventies Saturdays – The Great White Hope

The Great White Hope (1970, dir. Martin Ritt)
Starring James Earl Jones, Jane Alexander, Lou Gilbert, Joey Fluellen

Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play, The Great White Hope is a “names changed” version of the career of Jack Johnson, an African-American boxer during the early 20th century. Johnson was the first black heavyweight boxing champion and was known for patiently waiting for his opponent to slip up, then barraging him with a series of incapacitating blows. Johnson was a figure of great controversy, not just because he was a threat to the white male ego in the boxing ring, but because all of the women he became seriously involved with were white. Johnson showed little sense of humility about his dealings and was one of the first public figures to really use controversy as a way to promote his own celebrity.

In the film, Jack Jefferson (Jones) has just defeated the heavyweight champion and is celebrating this achievement with much bravado. The African-American community is divided about Jefferson though. While those around him immediately after the fight revel with him and dance in the streets, there are others who see Jefferson has creating negative image for their people because of his brazeness. Another group see Jefferson as being nothing but an “uncle tom” by consorting with white women and embracing what they see as a white way of life. Jefferson has an interesting take on all of this. In a scene early on, after he is weighed in before the big bout, an older black gentleman mentions that the young men will be inspired and “proud to be colored” when Jefferson wins. The boxer replies that they should already be proud and his winning or losing should have nothing to do with it. An interesting idea when thinking about the role of athletes as “role models” in contemporary society.

Jefferson and his fiancee, Eleanor’s relationship is played very well, but we don’t get enough background to understand how they came together. They are very much in love, but we’re never shown how, despite the social stigma of their relationship, they would defy it and stay together. The film also has some problems with how broadly a lot of characters are played. The white establishment villains literally “bwahahaha” at one point in the final scenes, and it would have been interesting to see them played with more internal conflict. Jane Alexander’s performance as Eleanor is also ruined by the pointless turn her character is forced to take, mainly to serve as momentum to move Jefferson forward to the finale. The one standout performance is James Earl Jones as Jefferson; he plays the character as incredibly multi-layered. Jefferson is charming and intelligent, but also selfish and arrogant. He loves Eleanor deeply but is resentful when he realizes she’ll never understand the limitations put on him.