Boxer Jack Jefferson (James Earl Jones) is the world's reigning heavyweight boxing champion. There's just one problem, he is also the first black heavyweight champion, and that bothers a lot of people. Jack's celebration is cut short, as Jack is framed for crossing a state line with Eleanor, his white fiancé (Jane Alexander in her first film role), a violation of the Mann Act. Facing a prison sentence, Jack escapes to Europe, with Eleanor in tow, encountering problems in England, and then France, and eventually landing in Cuba. In Havana, Jack agrees to enter the boxing ring for what might be the bout of his life. Both Jones and Alexander were nominated for Oscars.Written by
THE GREAT WHITE HOPE is a successful play by Howard Sackler first, premiered in 1967 and both Jones and Alexander won Tony Awards for it. Then this film adaptation sticks with the two leads and is directed by Martin Ritt, whose works are generically significant in requiring dramatic acting predisposition (THE LONG, HOT SUMMER 1958, 6/10; MURPHY'S ROMANCE 1986, 7/10).
The scenario is about the black boxer Jack Jefferson (Jones), whose real-life archetype is Jack Johnson, the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion (1908-1915), his up-and-down life orbit and the relationship with his white financé Eleanor (Alexander). And the title signifies his opponents' urgent solicitation for any white boxer who can reclaim the golden belt from him.
To be expected, the first half is a prolonged battle against the racist's bias inside the US nation, Jack's gregarious and often jokey public image is his weapon to counteract the provincial prejudice, but when he faces his own kinds, he takes umbrage at their equally biased minds, which shows how in-your-face and sapient is Sackler's script, external hostility is disrespectful, to be sure, but it is the internal rift that hurts the most (usually due to jealousy). Fortunately, their unconditional love is the remedy for this part, Jack wins the champion title but soon to be deliberately persecuted by authority figure sand has to sneak away from homeland and go into exile in Europe, with a daring scheme to get away under the police's eyes after receiving his mother's blessing, Jack escapes with Eleanor, his agent Goldie (Gilbert) and loyal trainer Tick (Fluellen).
The second part of the film is an extensive hubris study, from a national champion to a down-and-out exile, Jack and Eleanor's affinity is under severe strains, from Great Britain, France to Hungary, Jack persistently refuses to go back for a lose-it-all match in exchange of getting his charges revoked, he dismisses Goldie and they relocate in Mexico, it all goes down to Jones and Alexander's heartbreaking bickering scenes which is unsparingly painful to watch, and at the cusp of the tension, a tragedy would unexpectedly ensue, and finally Jack caves in, fights for a match he is doomed to lose. The spectacular performance is the bona-fide highlight of this theatrical piece, both Jones and Alexander are remarkably scintillating and intensely heart-rending, they were worthily Oscar-nominated that year, as her screen debut, Alexander has a borderline leading role but her plaintive mien and inviolable finesse proves that acting is her vocation. Jones, before he would become the universally beloved voice of Darth Vader, clearly goes all out in a hard-earned leading role for a black actor at then, he scopes out both the charisma and the weakness of his character quite remarkably, although physically he doesn't bear a convincing resemblance of a brawny boxer.
If you are a sport fan and into boxing matches, the film would let you down mercilessly, by modern standard the final showdown is conspicuously fake, all the jabbing and punching are laughably posed, but it would be a different matter for theatrical connoisseurs, for me, I didn't see the ending coming as it is enacted in the film, a nice conceit indeed, he doesn't fake to lose the game, purely he is not that champion any more, he is a man destroyed by this unjust world, a tragedy of his time and a tale of woe resounds profoundly.
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