The Great White Hope is a film about Jack Johnson, who in 1908 became first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion. In May 2018, Jack Johnson was posthumously pardoned by President Trump for the federal crime of “transporting a woman across State lines for immoral purposes”.
The Great White Hope is a terrific 1970 movie starring James Earl Jones as Jack Johnson. It is probably hard for you to imagine that today’s rather obese James Earl Jones once played the world’s top athlete. However, in 1970, James Earl Jones was in such great shape for the film that reporters commonly asked Jones if he had ever been a boxer himself. (The answer is no – James Earl Jones was just a dedicated actor who got himself in the best physical shape of his life in order to perform the role to perfection). The Great White Hope was a Broadway play before it was a movie, and James Earl Jones had also starred in the theatrical production. For some unknown reason, The Great White Hope calls the heavyweight champ Jack Jefferson instead of Jack Johnson, although everyone knew who the movie was really about.
In 1908, being the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion was a much bigger deal than it is today. There were not multiple titles, there was no Ultimate Fighting champ, and no one pushing to ban the sport. The average citizen followed boxing with the same passion that people today follow football, basketball, soccer and baseball.
Unlike other sports of the day, boxing in 1908 was fully integrated. This is an amazing fact, when you consider that Jackie Robinson was the first African American to play major league baseball and that was not until 1947. However, for its entire history, the heavyweight boxing champions had always been White. From John L. Sullivan in 1882 all the way to 1908 , the heavyweight champs were White men whose accomplishments sports writers spoke of with awe.
Then came Jack Johnson, nicknamed the “Galveston Giant” who won the crown. Of course, there was open racism, but boxing is one of those sports where the winner is absolutely clear. Many White people hated Jack Johnson, but had to grudgingly admit he was the best boxer in the world. Sports writers, fans and boxing promoters started searching for what became known as “The Great White Hope.” Promoters were under pressure to find some White boxer who could beat Jack Johnson.
Then Jack Johnson went one step too far. He married a White woman and had affairs with several other White women. That was when the government charged him with violating the Mann Act, a Federal law forbidding the transportation of a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. The Mann Act was designed as a law to prosecute pimps. It was never intended to be a way to prosecute a man who happens to drive with his girlfriend over a state border.
Jack Johnson fled the Unites States and for 7 years lived in Europe continuing to box and defend his World Championship.
The Great White Hope chronicles this exciting period in history, and James Earl Jones is perfect in the lead role. Jane Alexander plays the White girlfriend who eventually becomes Jack’s wife, and who is naïve enough to think they can somehow have a normal life. Chester Morris is Pop Weaver, Jack’s manager & promoter who is making a fortune on the fights, but who actually cares about Jack as a person.
So what actually happened to the real Jack Johnson? On April 5, 1915 Jack Johnson lost the heavyweight title to White boxer Jess Willard, in Havana Cuba in the 26th round. Fights were much longer than they are today. The match had been scheduled to last 45 rounds! Even though that match was 103 years ago, fight fans still argue about whether or not Jack Johnson took a dive. Johnson always said he never took dive. He pointed out that no one who planned to take a dive would let themselves take a beating for 26 rounds before going down.
In May of 2018, President Donald Trump officially pardoned Jack Johnson of the Mann Act charges. This is long overdue, but a posthumous pardon always has a hollow ring to it. Jack Johnson died in a car crash on June 10, 1946 at the age of 68. It would have been nice if one of the prior Presidents had pardoned the champ while Johnson was still alive.
The 1970 film The Great White Hope still holds up as a good movie to watch today. If you are interested in the fascinating story of the man who Trump just pardoned, we recommend the film.
- We give The Great White Hope Four Stars ****
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- See our review of Chuck, the film of the real life “Rocky”