THE GREAT WHITE HOPE (1970)

 

 

 

Director:     Martin Ritt

Starring:     James Earl Jones (Jack Jefferson),  Jane Alexander (Eleanor Bachman), Lou Gilbert (Goldie), Joel Fluellen (Tick), Chester Morris (Pop Weaver),  Robert Webber (Dixon),  R. G. Armstrong (Cap'n Dan),  Hal Holbrook (Al Cameron),  Beah Richards (Mama Tiny) , Moses Gunn (Scipio), Jim Beattie (The Kid).

based on The Great White Hope (1968), a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by American playwright Howard Sackler

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

White fighter Frank comes out of the house telling everyone:  "I ain't gonna fight no dinge!"  Frank says he's retired, but a manager says that he will have Frank back in shape in no time.  He says Frank has to fight the black man.  He says:  "Nobody thought the nigger would lick one, then go after the other all the way to Australia."  A reported tells Frank Brady that he is the white hope.  Arrangements are made between Cap'n Dan and Goldie for Frank Brady to fight Jack Jefferson in Reno, Nevada, in the Rockies, "white man's country". 

Jack Jefferson is training in a gym.  Watching him is his white girlfriend Eleanor Bachman.  Goldie comes into the gym and says the fight is set for the 4th of July.  He tells Jack that there will be 12,000 seats around the ring.  Goldie also says that in all his career he's never seen so much hoopla about a fight.  What Goldie doesn't like is the white girl watching everything.  Jack takes Goldie over and introduces him to Ellie.  The two shake hands, but Goldie doesn't want the press seeing her.  The whites already hate Jack enough and this may push them past reason.  They will want to come after Jack with guns. 

The reporters come in and Jack turns on like a spot light.  He is charming and witty.  As he talks with them his black common-law wife Clara comes into the gym.  She goes to attack Ellie, but Jack's trainer Tick grabs her.  Jack tells her:  "I quit on you when you cleared out of Detroit with Willie the Pimp."  Goldie pleads with the reporters not to print this story.  He tells them that they all want to see a fight, don't they?  The boys agree to hold back on the story. 

The Reno Special train rolls into Reno filled with sports fans.  The main street of town is filled with people.  Frank Brady comes out to the cheer of the white crowd.  The champ weighs in at 205 pounds.  Now Jack Jefferson comes up to be weighed. He weighs in at 191.  The whites start hurling all kinds of racial slurs at Jack and it's hard for him to talk and be heard.  Some black men come up to shake Jack's hand.  Jack is not very good to his fellow blacks because he doesn't like being a symbol of anything for anybody. 

Jack Jefferson smiles as he pastes Brady over and over again.  That evening in Chicago Jack celebrates his victory with Ellie.  He is a big hero this night.  He introduces Ellie to the huge crowd and then his manager Goldie and his trainer. There's dancing in the streets with Jack having a ball. 

Jack has to listen to some abuse from a black man asking him just how white does he intend to get?  The guy goes on and on.  He finally stops and walks away.  Jack is affected by the harsh words, but he pushes forward to get into his own night club, followed by a huge group of his fans.

The whites want to close down Jack Jefferson's cafe.  They are especially offended by the presence of the white woman on Jack's arm.  But there's nothing the law can do since she is past the age of consent. But the district attorney Al Cameron calls Ellie into his office anyways.  He tells her this is just an informal inquiry.  She tells him that she met Jack on the boat coming back from Australia.  And it was she who asked the ship's captain to introduce her to Jack.  They had dinner together several times and then they started eating in Jack's room.  The district attorney wants to know if Jack plied her with liquor and pills?  She says never.  She tells Al that she wants to stop him from attempting to get at Jack through her.  She starts crying and asks why can't people leave her and Jack alone?   Al pushes a little too hard to try to frame Jack, Ellie curses him and then leaves. 

Jack and Ellie take a ride out into the country in his sports car.  They have some champagne and walk around the lake.  They stay overnight in a cabin enjoying each other's company.  Ellie dreams of getting a dark skin burn and pretending to be Creole so people wouldn't bother them as much.  Just then the police bust in on Jack and Ellie.  The federal marshal says Jack drove Ellie over the state line and had sex with her and that is a violation of the Mann Act.

Jack's mother learns that Jack is going to get a $20,000 fine and three years in Joliet prison.  Jack gets out on bail and comes to his mother's house.  The colored baseball team is there to give him a warm reception.  Goldie also comes with Jack.  Jack has a plan to escape from his surveillance.  Ballplayer Rudy is dressed in a loud pink shirt just like the one that Jack wears.  He is going to stay in the house by the window so the police can see him at all times, while Jack and the baseballers are going to get on the train heading for their ball game in Montreal, Canada.   

Clara wants Jack to take her with him, but Jack won't do it.  So Clara tries to scream for the cops.  The women grab her and take her down to the floor.  A big woman sits on top of Clara.  Jack says good-bye to everyone and then the ball team leaves.  Jack walks right past the police. 

Jack is in merry ol' England with the boxing staff and Ellie.  They stay at the Crown Hotel.  A hearing is held on whether or not to throw Jack out of England as a criminal.  Jack gets to stay, but they will make it difficult for him to fight.  A fight is arranged and Eliie wanted to see the fight but Jack doesn't want her to.  The crowd boos Jack hard because he is really beating up on the white guy.

Federal Marshal Dixon comes to Cap'n Dan and Pop Weaver and tells them that he can arrange a deal where the government will lessen the punishment for Jack Jefferson if he would agree to lose the fight.  The men go for the idea. 

Jack and Ellie are in Germany now.  Ellie is tired of being alone all the time while Jack is out having fun entertaining crowds in the park.  Goldie comes over and explains the arrangement for the fight to come, but Jack doesn't want to take a dive.  He now parts company with Goldie over this. 

In Hungary Jack and Ellie have to act out Uncle Tom's Cabin in a cabaret. 

Jack and the team are now living and training in Mexico in a very poor village.  They are definitely facing hard times.  Ellie begs Jack to accept what the boxing promoters want from him and get it over with.  She wants to see him back in the ring knocking men down.  And she wants at least some minimum of comfort, a place with a kitchen, for instance.  Jack is tired of hearing and seeing her suffer so he tells her to leave on the 10 a.m. train.  Now she starts crying that she doesn't want to leave.  He works on her a little more to convince her he's serious and she finally says:  "You win, daddy!" 

Dixon comes to Jack and tells him that the boxing match can be held in Havana, Cuba.  And if he fights the way they want him to fight, he can turn himself in and only get a suspended sentence. His opponent will be The Kid. 

Ellie threw herself down a well to kill herself.  Her body is brought into the training area.  This upsets Jack so much that he agrees to the match. 

In the boxing match, it seems that Jack is taking a lot of hits from his opponent.  Goldie gets tired of this charade and tells him this next round he wants Jack to lay down.  Jack does lay down, but gets up at the count of nine.  Now he starts beating up his opponent with blow after blow.  His rival goes down once, twice and then is saved by the bell.  When the fight resumes Jack goes right back to beating up on his opponent.  After awhile, Jack goes down once, twice, thrice and this time he stays down.  There's a new champion of the world. 

 

 

 

 

This is a great story of white racism and black resentment. The story is based on the life of Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world. Johnson resented both white and black groups and just wanted to do his own thing. He loved flaunting his white women and his lavish life style under the noses of the whites and then fighting off accusations of selling out from his fellow blacks. James Earl Jones is perfect as the flashy Johnson, catching the braggadocio character of the famous fighter.  (Jane Alexander is also very good as the champ's white lover.)

The story starts after Johnson has already defeated boxer Tommy Burns in Australia to win the heavyweight championship and picks up the story with Johnson preparing for the fight with the "Great White Hope."

The depth of the hatred of whites for blacks at the time really comes out as the whites, who cannot get a white fighter to defeat Johnson, use the criminal justice system to "fix" Johnson.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 


Historical Background:

 

John Arthur Johnson

1878 -- born in Galveston, Texas.

1889 c. -- leaves school after the fifth grade and works in a succession of low-paying jobs; becomes interested in boxing while working as a janitor at a gymnasium; leading black boxer in Galveston.

1897 -- the 6 feet, 1 1/4 inches Johnson turns professional; reputation as quick and powerful fighter, especially good as a counter-puncher.

1901 -- moves to California.

1903 -- Feb. 3, 1903, in Los Angeles, becomes the "Colored Heavyweight Championship of the World" with a 20-round decision over Denver Ed Martin.

1903 -- is recognized as country's best black heavyweight boxer; racism makes it impossible for him to fight the top white heavyweights, John L. Sullivan and Jim Jeffries, who claim that by fighting Johnson, they would sully boxing's reputation.

1908 -- fights Canadian boxer Tommy Burns, who held the world title, in Sydney, Australia and wins becoming world heavyweight champion; fights 5 more times over next two years.

1909 -- Oct. 16; Johnson easily defeats 170 pound middleweight champ Stanley Ketchel in Colma, California, in the 12th round with a strong right to the jaw knocking out five teeth.

1910 -- the American whites cannot stand Johnson being champ (being especially upset because of Johnson's proclivity for white women), so they put immense pressure on former champion Jim Jeffries to come out of retirement and become "The Great White Hope." Johnson knocks out Jeffries in the 15th round on July 4 in Reno, Nevada; Johnson gets $117,000 dollars for the bout.

1911 -- marries for the second time to white woman Etta Terry Duryea who 8 months later commits suicide.

1912 -- July 4; successfully defends his championship against Jim Flynn; opens his nightclub Cafe de Champion in Chicago; hangs out with Lucille Cameron, a white secretary, whom he later marries.

1912 -- since the whites cannot get Johnson in the ring, they decide to apply political pressure to get Johnson on trumped up criminal charges; Johnson is tried for violating the Mann Act of 1910, which forbids transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes (mainly prostitution); all Johnson did was give travel money to a girlfriend who had worked as a prostitute and she then crossed a state line; with the charges hanging over him, Johnson married Cameron on Dec. 4, 1912.

1913 --in the court of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the future commissioner of baseball, Johnson is convicted; moves to France to avoid prison and stays abroad for seven years; in Paris, he performs a number of farcical bouts with wrestlers.

1915 -- in Havana, Cuba, Johnson loses his title to American boxer Jess Willard after being knocked out in the 26th round; Johnson claims later that he threw the fight to get better terms by which he could return to the U.S.

1920 -- Johnson goes to Spain, then Mexico, fighting a few times; surrenders to federal authorities.

1921 -- on July 9, after spending a year in prison in Leavenworth, Kansas (where he boxed five times), Johnson is released.

1924 -- divorces his wife, Cameron; marries white Irene Pineau; later works as businessman, writer, and appears at boxing exhibitions.

1928 -- spring; the last two sanctioned fights of his career at the age of 50; he is knocked out in Kansas by Ed "Bearcat" Wright and then by Big Bill Hartwell.

1931 -- non-sanctioned fights against Brad Simmons leads to his being banned from boxing in Kansas.

1946 -- June 10; at the age of 68, Johnson dies in an automobile accident in Raleigh, N.C.

 

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