When African-American boxer Jack Johnson became the heavyweight champion of the world in 1908, white people were so affronted that outrageous tactics were used against him: He was arrested, under dubious legal precedent, for crossing state lines with his white lover, and a retired white boxer was recruited to challenge Johnson in an epic slugfest. Johnson’s opponent was dubbed the “great white hope.” Outside of the ring, Johnson’s life was just as tumultuous, because his marriages were fraught with allegations of abuse, and his third wife had emotional issues culminating in suicide.
To say that Johnson’s story begs for dramatic treatment is an understatement, so it’s no surprise writer Howard Sackler scored with his late-’60s play The Great White Hope, starring the ferocious James Earl Jones as a fictionalized character named “Jack Jefferson” and costarring the formidable Jane Alexander as his lover. Both actors won Tony awards before reprising their roles in this flamboyant film adaptation, which was written by Sackler and directed by diehard lefty Martin Ritt. The actors received matching Oscar nominations, and Jones and Alexander are the best things about this movie.
In his first major film role (previous work included a small part in Dr. Strangelove), Jones uses all of the considerable powers at his disposal. In addition to his legendary speaking voice, a thundering instrument infused with authority and passion, Jones displays intense physicality, strutting around with a muscular frame and a shaved head that frames his burning eyes; he incarnates not just Johnson but the very soul of the African-American experience in all of its joy and rage. Alexander paints with softer colors, her role being a somewhat murky amalgam of several real-life inspirations, but she connects strongly when pushed to extremes of anguish and defiance.
Unfortunately, the movie containing their performances is not as focused. Sackler uses Johnson/Jefferson as a prism for demonizing the white establishment, so the movie sometimes drifts from the specificity of one man’s story to the sprawl of a Major Statement. Worse, Sackler’s dialogue is pretentious and stilted, with Jefferson spewing rat-a-tat runs meshing African-American patois and pidgin English into a slangy stew that’s hard to decipher.
The stylized writing is exacerbated by Ritt’s direction, which uses opulently fake-looking sets and weirdly affected flourishes like showing fights through quick glimpses rather than full views. Still, Burnett Guffey’s cinematography is rich, and he lights Jones so brightly the actor seems to have heat waves coming off his body. Thus, while the movie’s intentions are noble, the sum effect is middling—the leading actors do great work even as they struggle to enliven an overly politicized history lesson.
The Great White Hope: FUNKY