The Great White Hope (film)

The Great White Hope

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Martin Ritt
Produced by Lawrence Turman
Screenplay by Howard Sackler
Based on The Great White Hope
by Howard Sackler
Starring James Earl Jones
Jane Alexander
Music by Lionel Newman
Cinematography Burnett Guffey
Edited by William Reynolds
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates
October 11, 1970 (1970-10-11)
Running time
103 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $9.87 million[1]

The Great White Hope is a 1970 biographical romantic drama film written and adapted from the Howard Sackler play of the same name.[2][3][4]

The film was directed by Martin Ritt, starring James Earl Jones, Jane Alexander, Chester Morris, Hal Holbrook, Beah Richards and Moses Gunn. Jones and Alexander, who also appeared in the same roles in the stage versions, both received Best Actor and Actress Academy Award nominations for their performances.

The film and play is based on the true story of Jack Johnson and his first wife, Etta Terry Duryea. The controversy over their marriage and Duryea's death by suicide in 1912.[5]


Set between 1910 and 1915, the story follows Jack Jefferson (James Earl Jones; patterned after real-life boxer Jack Johnson) going on a hot streak of victories in the boxing ring as he defeats every white boxer around. Soon the press and racists announce the search for a "great white hope", a boxer who will defeat Jefferson for the heavyweight title. Meanwhile, Jefferson prepares for a few more matches, but he lets his guard down by courting the beautiful (and very white) Eleanor Bachman (Jane Alexander), and when everyone, including Jack's black "wife", discover this, the tensions grow to fever pitch. Jack's close black friends become scared over his pushing the envelope of success and the white authorities conspire to frame him with unlawful sexual relations with Eleanor and thereby take away his title. It leads to jealousy, a run from the law, and finally, disaster.



The film opened to positive responses from both audiences and critics. They especially loved the performances of both James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, who were in the original stage play: they won Tonys for the play. Jones would get bigger roles after this film, and Alexander made a debut here. Jones later contributed commentary to a documentary about Jack Johnson that would sum up this film, saying: "To know the story of Jack Johnson is to know that it is a study in hubris."

However, critical opinion of the film has declined in recent years. The Great White Hope currently maintains a 43% "Rotten" approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, indicating mixed-to-negative reviews. Critic Vincent Canby referred to the film as "One of those liberal, well-meaning, fervently uncontroversial works that pretend to tackle contemporary problems by finding analogies at a safe remove in history" while critic Emanuel Levy wrote "The movie is too theatrical and every idea is spelled out for the audience."

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

See also


  1. Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p256
  2. Clive Barnes (1968-10-04). "Theater: Howard Sackler's 'Great White Hope'" (PDF). The New York Times.
  3. Vincent Canby (1970-10-12). "'Great White Hope' Brought to Screen". The New York Times.
  4. Sackler, Howard (1968). The Great White Hope, A Play. New York, NY: The Dial Press, Inc. OCLC 451597.
  5. Unforgivable Blackness accessed 11/5/2016
  6. "AFI's 10 Top 10 Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-19.
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