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The Great White Hope: A Forgotten Biopic?
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The Great White Hope:
A Forgotten Biopic?

In 2009 in a rare act of bipartisanship Arizona Republican Senator John McCain and Nevada Democratic Senator Harry Reid asked newly elected President Barak Obama to grant a pardon to Jack Johnson, boxing's first black heavy-weight champion. Their request was the culmination of a campaign initiated by documentary maker Ken Burns, who had filed a petition on Johnson's behalf in July of 2004. In an editorial published in the Los Angeles Times in that month, Burns argued that Johnson's 1912 prosecution for violating the Mann Act was racially motivated. The timing of the application coincided with the airing of Burns's documentary Unforgivable Blackness, the first film to be made about Johnson's life in a generation. The bipartisan support for the request reflects the remarkable rehabilitation of the image of a man who was feared and reviled by most of white America in his era.

In 2004 Johnson was an obscure figure to most Americans. However, in the first decade of the twentieth century, Johnson's prime, he was the world's most famous black celebrity. After defeating retired champion Jim Jeffries, "the great white hope," in 1910, he was known to more people and made more money than any black American before him. No black sports figure would rival his celebrity until it was eclipsed by Muhammad Ali, who felt a close kinship with Johnson. Johnson's celebrity spread in part because he was the world's most celebrated athlete at the dawn of the cinema age. Indeed, he was one of the first film stars. Movies of his fights were seen throughout the world, making him the most significant black screen presence of the silent era. But after he lost the heavyweight crown in 1915, he was soon forgotten, relegated to obscurity for much of the remainder of the century.

Johnson was rescued from anonymity in the mid-1960s, becoming the subject of a Pulitzer prize-winning play, a documentary, and in 1970 a feature-length film, The Great White Hope. This article explores the making of this film, which seemed poised to return Johnson to national prominence. It was based on a celebrated Broadway play. It was well-financed and was widely reviewed in the press. It garnered several academy-award nominations, and many Hollywood [End Page 53] insiders assumed that its star, James Earl Jones, had narrowly lost the best actor award to George C. Scott's portrayal of Patton. Its subject matter—the threat of institutionalized racism to the American dream—could not have been more topical. And as a biography of a famous African American celebrity, it was a pioneering film.

Yet The Great White Hope ultimately left little mark on critics, audiences, or Hollywood. It is thus a forgotten biopic, one which has garnered scant attention in the extensive literature on sports movies, African American films, or biopics. It also failed to restore Johnson's place as a pioneering black athlete in the pantheon of American celebrity. This article attempts to explain the film's subsequent slide into relative obscurity. It argues that the movie was artistically and politically out of step with the trends of Hollywood cinema at the beginning of the 1970s. As a piece of film-making, it provided audiences with a confusing hybrid of genres, which offered little opportunity for identification with the protagonist. Politically, its presentation of Johnson was at odds with rapidly changing attitudes towards race, identity, and celebrity in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

At the same time, this article argues that this is a film worthy of scholarly attention: the first biopic of a black American since the end of the studio system, and one of only a handful made before 1970. Its images of miscegenation and domestic violence are remarkable, even though they provoked surprisingly little controversy at the time. And its commercial and artistic failure illuminates important shifts in the nature of black identity as it was being reconstituted by Hollywood during this turbulent political era. Overall, an analysis of the film provides insight into a transitional period in both the history of...