"Hey, look, man, 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?"
No one wants Jack Jefferson to be heavyweight champion. In 1909 America, spectators are loath to witness a black man win what's predominately considered the ultimate test of masculinity and skilled athleticism. It's not just that he's black--everyone including Jefferson knows the implications of skin color during the Jim Crow era. It's that he flaunts it. Loud, proud and never shy about confronting the obvious, Jefferson doesn't even have the sense to keep his personal life personal. He's got the wealth to live the high life full of expensive cars and fancy clothes, all of which he rubs in the faces of his detractors. He drinks, gambles and swears loudly. He's friends with criminals. He speaks his mind freely, calling out his critics and taunting his opponents both in and out of the ring. Flouting convention and breaking taboo, he dates and marries white women like his latest girlfriend, Eleanor, whom he keeps by his side wherever he goes. And he's never, ever sorry about any of it.
Desperate for a fighter who can defeat Jefferson and take him off his high horse are a group of zealous promoters who handpick a contender, a "great white hope", whom they feel will get the job done. It doesn't work. With embarrassing ease, Jefferson dispatches with one talked-up fighter, then another and another and so on until there's no one left. Ever more desperate, the powers that be rustle up the previous white heavyweight champ out of retirement to take down the titan. The event is billed as the "fight of the century" and is set in Reno where hundreds of thousands of spectators flock, effigies and all, to watch what must surely be the resounding defeat of Jefferson and the re-establishment of the white race's superiority. Again it doesn't work. Jefferson beats his opponent so badly and in such arrogant fashion that the event, broadcast nationwide on radio and recorded on camera as one of the first ever sporting events to be filmed, causes mass rioting in cities coast to coast. Jefferson is no longer seen as a smallish threat to certain people's pride. He's become enough of a controversial figure that other measures, shady legal ones, are employed to remove him at any cost.
Invariably all of the really good sports movies aren't really sports movies at all. They're usually films like this one which focus on individual athletes and play up the human interest element. There isn't much actual boxing in this film. Nor was the original play and nor the actual, very real-life story of Jack Johnson, the "Galveston Giant", ever really focused on the particulars of a left hook or upper-cut (the "fight of the century" is barely a single scene in the movie). Even as one of the greatest fighters of all time, Jack Johnson's life and legacy aren't really about his boxing prowess. He was too much of a pivotal figure at too critical a juncture to be remembered as merely a legendary athlete. This is something people know now, something which the film and of course the Tony award-winning play starring the same actors delves into and which, in lieu of, attempts to further the enigma of just who Jack Johnson (billed as Jack Jefferson in the film) really was. What's realized is that Jefferson isn't just facing a common adversity. This isn't The Hurricane with Denzel Washington as Rubin Carter able to (eventually) procure justice for himself or Robert Deniro as Jake Lamotta knowing that he needs to take a dive to get a shot at the title. This is an individual truly up against it, a man hated by millions, someone protestant ministers wanted lynched and a figure even denounced by many of his own. Jefferson has no chance at a fair shake and never a moment where his race isn't an issue. And yet at no point is he afraid to be, well, who he is. Jefferson can't hide his fun-loving nature or conceal the fact that he wants to enjoy life. He likes to have a good time and likes for those around him to have a good time. He's not as discrete as some would like, doesn't kowtow to whom he's supposed to but he sees no reason why he should. There are people who recognize this, who see him for who he is and even love him for it--at their peril of course, but still. Furthermore, Jefferson is no martyr. He doesn't dwell on any mythical connotations of his situation or wallow in the ingratiating injustice of his lot. With Jones as Jefferson, we see an energetic man who's often brash and impertinent but there's very little, if any, real malice or selfish resentment in his demeanor, really just the tongue-in-cheek commiseration with his situation being one of circumscribed futility.
The Great White Hope is a powerful film, but one which should be approached without any expectations or bias toward it being a certain type of movie. It's not a period film or exploitation piece. It's not a biopic, a sports flick or yet another movie chronicling America's embarassing racial history. It doesn't criticize, satirize or even condescend. It merely observes with striking palpability the story of a man, a 'colorful' but very smart and very shrewd man, just doing what he does, living his life as best he can how he would prefer to live it. Jones was nominated for an Oscar that year (1971) but lost out to George C. Scott for Patton. Indeed, the real Jack Johnson (1878-1946) was quite a figure, so much so that Ken Burns devoted an entire two-part PBS documentary to him (DVD 796.83092 UNFORGIV) and there are of course several other books and websites on him as well as a local street, 41st St. in Galveston, which has been renamed Jack Johnson Boulevard. (DVD GREAT)