IF MARTIN RITT hasn't transformed the dross of The Great White Hope into a good film, at least his jumbling of theatrical convention and film cliche makes it fairly easy to watch. Despite playwright Howard Sackler's screenplay, and his play's prime standing as a Kultcha classic, Ritt hasn't stooped to the traditional homage Hollywood usually pays to Broadway hit-dom. The Great White Hope is severely divided, but many of the tensions the black actors manage to convey are true. At certain points-particularly when the splendid Moses Gunn, as an anachronistic black nationalist street preacher, accosts James Earl Jones after his character's return from a championship bout-the cast suggests the immense possibilities the story of the first Negro heavyweight champion could have held for artists who understood the period, its people, and the implications of the racial theme.
When Jack Johnson emerged from the black boxing circuit in 1910 to fight Tommy Burns for the heavyweight title, it was only twenty years after the general acceptance of Queensbury rules: the sport was still developing out of its rudimentary stages, and remained a popular outlet for urban athletes from overcrowded slums. Although American championship circles were predominantly WASPish or Irish Catholic, there were many amateur clubs where local heroes could box for fun, a prize, or a small purse, and an entire corps of talented black boxers (forced to fight mainly amongst themselves due to ring economics). Sam Langford, Joe Jeannette, and Sam McVey were so good that Johnson himself wouldn't box them when he held the title, though he had defeated each of them earlier.
In those times especially, the heavyweight champion of the world became a figure of international fame; and, if he came from a tenement-bound ethnic minority, a folk hero. This spirit is not yet dead; though today's fighters don't go twenty-five or thirty rounds, though tickets to a good fight now cost as much as seats for a ballet, when Italian legions scream "Nino!" a gut-level nationalism is present; and when Clay returns to floor a dumb (if scrappy) Irish fighter like Quarry, and a stronger Oscar Bonavena, the crowd roars for him not only as a boxer, but as a surrogate warrior fighting for appealing politics and style.
Thus, the attempt to indict a society through its treatment of an exceptional citizen-a rarely effective approach-is, in this case, justified. Indeed, not only has the game always aroused atavistic sentiments, but its management has also been incredibly racist. What is disappointing and revealing about The Great White Hope is author Sackler's inability to make use both of the more obvious Clay-Johnson parallels, and Johnson's own unique character.
Jack Johnson became legend in the eyes of the early twentieth century's young Negro because he rebelled against the suggested "race behavior patterns" set by Booker T. Washington in Atlanta in 1895, patterns which remained unchanged until mid-century. Said' Washington to the white man:
We shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one.
"The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory," summarized Washington, "is worth infinitely more to the Negro than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house." Jack Johnson's reply to these sentiments, as recorded by Negro writer Robert DeCoy, was direct and succinct:
The Great White Way, called Good Life in America, ain't nothing but a bare black-ass lie!
In his world and time, all Johnson could see were follow blacks only wishing to emulate Whitely in their own modest fashion. DuBois NAACP was then a fledgling organization, unable to effect any vigorous social change: and Marcus Garvey, whose separatist Universal Negro Improvement Association Johnson later preached for, had not yet landed on U. S. shores.
Left without alternatives to follow, Johnson seemed to play out his repressed violence according to the animal urges of his naturally anarchic bent. He flaunted his wealth and what it bought him: white wives and concubines, fast cars and a dandy's clothing. In ring and out, he viciously mocked his white opponents. Most irritatingly, his face was unmarked, and he always kept smiling.
Given the historical context, it may seem nigh impossible to overstate the repressive prejudices of Johnson's time. However, that is precisely what Sackler has done. Most of Johnson's personality has been removed from the playwright's Jack Jefferson, making him more defenseless and unblemished than Johnson's staunchest supporters ever claimed. Sackler's character has none of Johnson's sensual excesses (and only one all-suffering white wife, drearily enacted by Jane Alexander). The ironic sense of his own destiny which allowed Johnson to cheat and compromise his way to personal security is switched to Jefferson's stereotyped Jewish manager-and how Sackler, Ritt, and producer Lawrence Turman must have masochistically gloried in that character's representation! Even Johnson's superb defensive fighting style (displayed recently in two documentaries, The Legendary Champions and Jack Johnson ) is altered; though Jones' Jefferson looks as greased and bouncy as Gypsy Joe Harris in the pitifully few boxing scenes, he charges like a bull, and lacks Johnson's throw-away finesse.
WHEN preceded by the statement, "much of what follows is true," the entire play, and much of the film, strikes me as being terribly obscene. Sackler attempts to voice radical, anti-white-capitalist sentiment, but he seems to have a pretty limited concept of how racism is manifested socially and culturally. (Given the skeletonization of Johnson, and the limited glimpses of the American white community, this is probably inevitable.) When corruptive social forces are embodied as moustache-twirling villains, what is produced is not indignation, but derisive laughter. Similarly, if a black man is victorious even in self-imposed defeat, quiet desperation is glorified. Sackler's decision to uphold the disproven theory that Johnson threw his last title fight under federal pressure is disastrous both dramatically and thematically.
Twentieth Century Fox probably decided to finance the film to the tune of $8 million because of the burgeoning black film audience (and audience which rarely has the opportunity to see the creations of black directors). However, Richard Zanuck might also have realized that in its essential "past-ness," the play is a suitable vehicle for white exorcism. Fox may thus have a box-office winner every bit as salable as last spring's fence-straddler, Patton.
The film does, however, seem somewhat healthier than the play as written (contrary to current belief). And this is despite the fact that in every plastic sense, Ritt is a perfectly lousy director. Some of the scenes are indistinguishable from those taped on stage for the Ed Sullivan show. When Ritt wants the audience to know that a crowd is present, he frames a few hundred thousand people cheering. Period. When he wants to emphasize the "frail nobility" and "still small voice" of a group of blacks praying for Johnson before the stadium in Reno, he sticks them in what suddenly seems to be a ghost town, and pans slowly, portentously, to the white-filled stadium. He handles his fight scenes-what there is of them-clumsily. Giving up habitual Ritt photographer James Wong Howe was particularly unfortunate in this respect, as Howe was the man who donned roller skates and took his camera into the ring with Body and Soul, while Burnett Guffey specializes in landscapes.
What Ritt does do besides give the film's supporting acting a derivative panache is make Jefferson a lot more angry than he was on the stage. And he achieves this simply by intelligent use of what has become a hackneyed editing cover-up-the reaction shot. James Earl Jones knows what Johnson was all about; if the boxer learned to resent most white men, he also pitied his black mammy and scorned the life she led. Ritt plugged in Jones' knowing smirk enough times to keep me some-what interested in the overheated proceedings.
Ultimately, the film is worth seeing, but only for the events it portrays. It is not an achieved work on any level; throughout the play, and particularly during an obligatory Odetsian family scene, I was reminded of a hilarious line once spoken seriously in a late Odets play: "Half-baked idealism is the peritonitis of the soul." Odets himself knew that he was dissipated and corrupted when he wrote that line, having lost his Depression radicalism somewhere between World War II and Hollywood. Sackler, however, tries to effect that which he never possessed; and Ritt, himself far removed from his honest work, Edge of the City and Hud, cannot cover for him. The Jewish playwright is no longer in a position to voice radical ethos convincingly. That may be the real tragedy behind The Great White Hope.