Film / The Great White Hype

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"Some say this upcoming title fight is built around racism! But is it racism that electrifies people? Across the globe? Or is it a pride in your tribe?"
Mitchell Kane

The Great White Hype is a 1996 film directed by Reginald Hudlin. It stars Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Berg, Damon Wayans, Jeff Goldblum, Jon Lovitz, Cheech Marin, John Rhys-Davies, Salli Richardson and Jamie Foxx.

The title is a play on the title of the 1970 film The Great White Hope, but it is not based on an actual boxing contest. It was inspired by Larry Holmes's 1982 fight with Gerry Cooney and Mike Tyson's 1995 return fight vs. Peter McNeeley.

The film was distributed by 20th Century Fox, which also distributed the earlier film.

James "The Grim Reaper" Roper (Damon Wayans), the undefeated heavyweight boxing champ of the world, defeats his latest challenger with ease and visits an after-party thrown by the Don King Expy the Rev. Fred Sultan (Samuel L. Jackson), a conniving and manipulative businessman who also acts as Roper's fight promoter.

The Sultan relays some bad news to everyone: The fight was a financial flop. He deduces the reason that boxing events have become far less profitable is because audience members are sick of watching only black boxers fight each other. The Sultan predicts that a white contender, even one without a viable chance of winning, would create a huge payday for all involved in the fight (citing the Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney battle in 1982 and the playing of the race card in that instance as a precedent), and he vows to either find or "create" a white contender in no time at all.

Eventually, after some puzzling and searching since there are no credible white contenders around to challenge Roper, Sultan learns about Terry Conklin, a white fighter and Golden Gloves champion who knocked out Roper as an amateur. Conklin never fought as a professional and has long since retired from the ring and become a socially conscious rock and roller who donates all his profits to help the homeless. It only takes a few minutes of talking for Sultan to lure Conklin back into the ring, but Sultan soon has to deal with additional problems, including the rightful top contender, Marvin Shabazz, who is furious at being passed over for a title shot, and a freelance journalist named Mitchell Kane who is looking to expose Sultan's corruption and bring him down.

Hilarity Ensues as Sultan talks his way around and through all these problems en route to putting on the fight.


Tropes:

  • Accidental Truth: As part of hyping the bout, at one point Mitchell "reads" a blank piece of paper that he claims is a fan letter to Conklin. The "fan letter" is from a young disabled boy who is inspired by Conklin and thinks if Conklin can do the impossible and win, maybe the boy can do the impossible and walk again. While the whole thing is fake, during the night of the fight a young boy in a wheelchair is seen rooting for Conklin, and is crushed when Conklin loses.
  • Actor Allusion: As Samuel L Jackson's Sultan sits down at ringside he has a short exchange with a familiar looking man.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: Despite frequent protests about giving a title shot to someone who has never fought as a pro, this has happened in reality. 1956 Olympic gold medalist Pete Rademacher bragged that he could defeat then Heavyweight Champion floyd Patterson in his pro debut. Patterson obliged and gave Rademacher a title shot for his first pro fight, and knocked Rademacher out. (Although similar to the film Rademacher had some early success, knocking Patterson down in the 2nd round. Patterson came back and knocked Rademacher down seven times before the fight was stopped in the sixth round.)
  • Bad Boss: Sultan rewards his subordinates but makes it abundantly clear that he is the boss, his word goes and do not piss him off. Wielding a very hefty looking scimitar during a business meeting is not a sign of a nice man. But then, his Expy is a rather notorious figure who was involved in criminal activity and once was convinced of second-degree murder of an employee.
  • Broken Pedestal: Mitchell Kane to his documentary team. He sold out. Big.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Mitchell Kane. Starts off as a crusading journalist out to expose the Sultan only to take up a job with Sultan for a big paycheque. While it looks like the reverend is very happy with Mitchell’s work and will reward Mitchell for his efforts, Mitchell just can’t help himself. Once he starts to think that Conklin may have a legitimate chance to upset Roper, Mitchell gets exclusive rights to manage and promote any future Conklin bouts, stealing Conklin out from under Sultan's nose.
  • Cluster F-Bomb:
  • Cool Car: Subverted. The "Bro-ham."
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Conklin is a ditzy, not especially bright guy who is frequently overly naive and out of his depth. (And one press conference where a doctor talks about the medical records of Conklin and Roper establishes that Conklin has at least some brain damage.) However, he does still have at least some legitimate fighting ability, best shown when Marvin Shabazz tries to crash one of Conklin's press conferences and Conklin lays him out with one punch. That's the point where the film's public (and Mitchell Kane) start to think Conklin has a real shot.
  • David vs. Goliath: A challenger who never fought as a professional but is training hard versus the overconfidant champion who has dominated the sport. Goliath wins, and it's not even a contest.
  • Deconstructive Parody: In this movie the plucky underdog face the harsh reality that sometimes the underdog doesn't get a happy ending.
  • Evil Mentor: Sultan to Bambi and Mitchell.
  • Expy: There are a few, which is to be expected in a comedy about boxing.
    • Samuel L. Jackson as Sultan is Don King.
    • Today Damon Wayans’ Grim Reaper Roper could certainly be considered a 90s version of Floyd Mayweather Jr., but back when it was made he was an expy of Tyson at the top of his game.
    • Julio, the man who works closely with Sultan and manipulates the rankings of the WBI to make Conklin a top ten rated fighter, is one for Jose Sulaiman, the lifetime president of the real life WBC (World Boxing Council) who worked closely with Don King and often gave preferential treatment, rankings, and title shots to King's fighters.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Mitchell Kane. That swine.
  • Fake Irish: In-universe example. Despite his very Irish name Terry Conklin is not Irish at all, but Sultan claims he is in promotions so that he can play the race card more blatantly. Amusingly Terry's trainer holds to older ideas of race and mentions that being Irish means he isn't actually white.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Sultan. But what else would one expect from a Don King Expy.
  • Fish out of Water: Conklin is an All-Loving Hero utterly disgusted by the racism and sexism around him fighting for the hope of earning money for the homeless. He's so far out of his depth in the cynical world of boxing that he doesn't even comprehend how bad it is, and by the end just wants to go home.
  • Gangsta Style: Shaabazz, Hassan and two Mooks ambush Sultan and co at Sultan's mansion brandishing guns horizontally. Queue lots and lots of pretty red lights focusing on Hassan. Even some of the trained bodyguards are guilty of this:
    Hassan: See this is what happens see when you been living lavish, you know, sippin' wine an' everything then we come in here Neno Brown Style. Huh-yeah!
  • Hard Work Hardly Works: The challenger trains hard. He also has lots of moral support and fans backing him. While the undefeated champion, lets himself get fat and hardly trains. During the main event, the challenger lands one good punch, before getting knockout out by an angry, overweight champion.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Michell Kane starts out trying to expose the Sultan's corrupt practices. By the end of the film, he decides to leave journalism and become part of the corrupt, boxing industry.
  • Hidden Heart of Gold: When Conklin's charity work and social justice focus starts being contrasted with Roper's self-indulgent lifestyle in the media, one journalist finds out that Roper is actually spending large amounts of money on charitable causes and AIDS research, as well as visiting children's hospitals in every city he visits. Roper is pissed at what he sees as an intrusion and ends the interview.
  • Hope Spot: By the time of the fight Roper is badly out of shape and blatantly doesn't care, versus an opponent who has been training hard and thinks this is his big shot. It's still over 27 seconds into the first round.
  • Insistent Terminology: "It's Merlot"
  • Karma Houdini: The Sultan gets his payday, gets off scott free, and gains a new fighter in the process.
  • Large Ham: Jeff Goldblum enjoys a bit of scenery chewing in this flick. Whether he’s mangling metaphors aimed at the corruption in boxing or reading a blank piece of paper telling the audience that wheelchair bound child will believe that he can walk again if Terry beats Roper.
  • Laser Sight: Shaabazz and Hassan try to ambush Sultan at his mansion but the Sultan has many bodyguards, all very big men, all with guns and all with Laser Sights. Hassan really gets in the mood to negotiate when the little red dots all congregate on his crotch.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Sultan. He gets the boxing world, even the cynics, to believe that Terry is a legitimate contender for the Heavyweight Crown.
    • Sol isn't no slouch in the department either. See Xanatos Gambit for details.
  • Ms. Fanservice: For a film about boxing's excess and corruption, you can bet that there are more than a few ladies taking up this role:
    • Bambi. Ooh La La.
    • The Playboy Bunnies for Terry's photoshoot.
    • The female fans who increase in number for each of Terry's press conferences.
  • Nothing Personal: Sultan shakes Mitchell’s hand after the fight. He knew Mitchell had succumbed to greed and wasn’t that bothered, he would have done it to.
  • Oh No You Didn't!: Mitchell really should not have said “My brother, I'm a man of peace” to the angry black man whose view of the fight he was blocking.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Politically incorrect world, more like. Nearly everyone around shows some level of contempt for women, other races, etc. About the only people who never do are Conklin and Bambi. Special notice goes to Conklin's trainer, however, who displays some true old school level of racism, between openly calling black people monkeys, speaking with approval of the Waffen SS, and at one point saying that the Irish don't properly count as white, but they're close enough.
  • Professional Butt-Kisser: The film is full of them, just as in real life many such groups often hang around fighters and promoters. Sultan and Roper both have small squads of such figures.
  • Read the Fine Print: Sultan's contracts aren't so much filled with tricks as deceptively vague. His legal adviser tells him that any attempt to prove it means anything specific will lead to years of litigation. This is specifically to make it so difficult to enforce that it's easier to just go along with what he wants. It's remarked in the movie that no sane lawyer would allow their client to sign it, which is why he places his own people as his fighters' lawyers.
  • Reality Ensues: Despite weeks of intense training and some flashes of potential, Conklin hasn't fought in years, never fought as a professional, has at least some brain damage, and has been living a hedonistic Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll lifestyle that hasn't done his athletic ability any favors. When he gets in the ring with the Heavyweight Champion, even one as out of shape, disinterested, and overconfident as Roper, he's quickly squashed. Turns out a few weeks of training and a lot of hype doesn't equal the years of dedication and honing his craft that the champ has put in.
  • Shown Their Work: Real fight footage is shown when Sultan is trying to find a white challenger, complete with details about the fighters seen. Other real facts about boxing are referenced, most importantly the record breaking box office of the Holmes vs Cooney fight.
  • Smarter Than You Look: Roper, despite his violent trade, is no fool. He's much more clever and shrewd than most people judge. He can instantly tell that Sultan has bad news and is trying to butter him up after the first fight of the film because Sultan is laying on the friendship and brotherhood talk too thick for it to be anything else.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: Invoked in-universe by being really blatant about it. Sultan's opening gambit when announcing the fight is the "Is it Hype, or is it Hope?" tagline. He also repeatedly exploits the race angle by denying that he's exploiting the race angle.
  • Talking Your Way Out: Sultan confronts Mitchell, a crusading reporter with a specific grudge against him and blackmail material he's willing to use, in person; by the end of the conversation Mitchell is his publicist.
  • The Alleged Car: Marvin Shabazz's Merlot Brougham.
  • Title Drop: Almost.
    Sultan: Is it Hype, or is it Hope?
  • Underdogs Never Lose: Subverted but played with.
  • Xanatos Gambit: Sol talking Mitchell into taking a shot at displacing Sultan. If Mitchell wins he gets his old job back in the new regime, if he loses he possibly gets his job back under under Sultan but definitely gets revenge on his replacement.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Mitchel's reporter team. Sure they quit when Mitchel did a Face–Heel Turn but they still have enough evidence to ruin The Sultan's career.

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