Friday, August 28, 2009

Great White Hope

What a terrific movie. I had always heard it was one of the roles for which James Earl Jones was nominated for an academy award in 1970 after winning a Tony for the same role he originated on Broadway. Based on a Pulitzer and Tony winning play by Howard Sackler it basically tells the story of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world (1910)but focusses more on his struggles outside of the boxing ring. He was a larger than life figure who refused to have the world tell him what he could say or do and especially that he had to stay away from certain places or people. His antics, especially with white women, was the ammunition they used to bring him down since the white establishment could never find any white fighter (the Great White Hope) capable enough to defeat Johnson in the boxy ring. You have to remember that in America blacks were expected to know their inferior place in the larger white society. Men and boys could be lynched for even looking the wrong way at a white girl. And the greatest title in the whole sporting world, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, was ONLY to be held by a white man. I mentioned earlier the terrific Ken Burns documentary, 'Unforgivable Blackness: The story of Jack Johnson' as THE source of the story about Johnson and his life. It emphasizes how fear and racism were used to try to put blacks back in their place and to destroy any ambitious talk or dreams that were a result of Johnson's 13 year reign as heavyweight champ. He was the first shot in a larger racial struggle that isn't over to this day, even with the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency.

After seeing the Burns documentary I was pretty well versed in the story and the principle players and it was a bit disorientating at first to realize that this was a more fictionalized account of Johnson's life as a boxer. The people he fought have had their names changed as are several other details removed from the true story. I see no need for that. Sticking straight to the truth and the facts are interesting all on their own. The changes here seem arbitrary.

The movie is brilliant in its costumes and set design that really take you back to the early 1900s when jazz and drink populated the whore houses and saloons that Johnson so loved to frequent. Even the liberal use of the 'N' word didn't seem out of place even to our modern ears. Much of the movie deal with the many authorities who tried to bring down the champ not for being a great fighter but for being a flawed man who flaunted the conventions of his day. Johnson dressed better than most and drove fast sports cars. He also slept with and travelled with many different white women. This was more than either race could stand and many from both sides worked tirelessly to see him stripped of his title as world's champion. Its an interesting study of how fear of change can motivate some to do anything to keep the status quo. Johnson showed blacks, that for the first time, they could challenge white beliefs about their inherent worth as humans. The goals to which they could aspire to were not beyond their reach. He very much believed that talent will win out in the end and that white people must be SHOWN this talent so that it could be acknowledged. Johnson was always his own man. Now blacks could look to him and try to be their own men too. It took a trick of lawyers that finally brought the champ down. He was charged and convicted of moving women across state lines for the purpose of prostitution. Now while some of the women he had met in brothels. They were travelling companions (with benefits) and he in no way was their pimp. But such accusations were enough to get him stripped of a title that no man ever beat him for in the boxing ring. I also enjoy how we get to see the (fictionalized) reactions the character of the champ has to the events going around him since few of the real Johnson's interviews or words survive.

1 comment:

Wings1295 said...

Interesting. This is one of those flicks I always hear about but never got around to seeing. Guess I should rectify that. Thanks, dude!