When “The Great White Hope” opened on Broadway in October 1968, the Voting Rights Act was 3 years old and Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated six months earlier. The image of sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their black-gloved fists during their awards ceremony at the Summer Olympics was still fresh in Americans’ minds. Chicago was about to become a Roman arena for rioting against the war in Vietnam.
And in New York, as Jack Jefferson — aka heavyweight great Jack Johnson — James Earl Jones was presenting America with the anti-Sidney Poitier: not a font of quiet dignity and restrained anger, but an exploding landmine of racial resentment, gleeful provocation and, far more scarily, a black man who slept with white women.
Poitier had already thrust race mixing into the mainstream culture with “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” But Jones and Jefferson were something else. Something more volatile. Playwright Howard Sackler had borrowed heavily from the life of the notorious Johnson, about whom the term “great white hope” was created: During Johnson’s reign as heavyweight champion (1908-1912), a racist public desperately wanted to find a white guy to defeat the seemingly unconquerable black fighter, one who liked rubbing his victories in that same public’s face (unlike, say, Joe Louis of a later era).
“It really was a spectacular play,” says longtime Time magazine critic Richard Schickel, who saw the original Broadway production. “It was a big, epic story, and it suited Jones in a unique way. He’s such a big actor, bursting out of the screen. The movie was a disappointment; it seemed awkward somehow. But it still had the capacity to shock.” That’s because, Schickel says, deep in the psychology of white America was the fear of the “studly black guy.
“It’s certainly at the heart of Southern racism,” he adds: “The rampaging black; delicate Southern womanhood. The story took on that aspect of racial prejudice.”
“Jones in ‘The Great White Hope’ was not so much confrontational as a confirmation — of that era’s strange mixture of fear and expectation,” says Armond White, film critic for the New York Press. “If memory serves, the play came after Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassinations and definitely after Muhammad Ali had become a pariah. Howard Sackler was responding to civil rights advances and black power agitation — making both suitable for the Broadway audience.”
Jefferson’s life was viewed by no less than Ali as an allegory for himself. “You take out the issue of white women and replace it with the issue of religion,” he reportedly said to Jones during the play’s Washington, D.C., run, “that’s my story.”
Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, aka “the Prince of Darkness” and a boxing enthusiast who at the time was riling both white and black critics with a newly assaultive form of electric music, recorded “Jack Johnson” the same year the film version of “The Great White Hope” was released in 1970. The LP, designed as the soundtrack for a documentary on the heavyweight champion by Bill Clayton, stood as both a black-power statement and a reaffirmation of Davis’ disregard for his audiences’ yearning for his “nice and easy” ballads of yore.
“‘TGWH’ isn’t a great movie,” White says, “or a radical one. But it was a liberal gesture in the good old sense of liberal. Why else would a card-carrying liberal filmmaker like Martin Ritt sign on? And could Ritt have made the much finer ‘Sounder’ and ‘Conrack’ without having first tackled ‘The Great White Hope’?”
Nevertheless, pioneering film critic Andrew Sarris, who now writes for the New York Observer, calls “Hope” “ridiculously ahead of its time.
“Still,” Sarris adds, “it would be a stretch to say that America had changed all that much in the intervening half-century. This was still very much a taboo subject for filmmakers. Even though the civil rights movement was gathering steam, there were very few movies that even ventured into this area — and there have not been very many since! This was a period when the touch of a black hand on a white woman’s hand would provoke nationwide outrage on both movie and television screens.”
As for Jones, critic White says, his image was a big step forward. “Remember Jones/Johnson telling the black kid, ‘If you ain’t proud to be black already, my winning ain’t gonna get you there!’ Well, that’s better than the bogus line in the new film ‘Notorious’: ‘If you make it, we all make it.’ I often think the civil rights era offered a clearer understanding of morality, identity and justice than today’s era of celebrity-worshipping capitalism.”
“The Great White Hope” was awarded the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for drama and Tony Award for best play; both Jones and newcomer Jane Alexander got Oscar nominations. As a film, it didn’t break any B.O. records, nor is it shown very often today. But at the time, it was a scandal, with that now-avuncular actor with the basso voice probing a nation’s psychosexual preoccupations.