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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-Whitfield 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, as a number of the champ's fights have been lately. Sultan deduces the reason that boxing events have become far less profitable is because white audiences are disinterested due to black fighters dominating the sport. 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 way racial tensions were blatantly and purposefully played up for the event), 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 an obscure socially conscious rock and roller who donates all his (meager, at best) 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 trying to get the skeptical boxing fans and press to buy the fight, 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.

This film provides examples of:

  • 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.
  • Appeal to Familial Wisdom:
    • Mitchell Kane interviews Marvin Shaabazz and Hassan El Ruk'n, and this confused exchange of parental advice emerges:
      Shaabazz: Like my Daddy say, you out there, James, the poodle, pussy whatever your name is, Roper, if you a man be a man! Step up. Fight me. You ain't fought nobody.
      Mitchell: Your Daddy said . . . what?
      Hassan: Just like my father have told me, when the green grass starts growing, you know, on the other side, somebody gotta cut the lawn.
      Mitchell: You know, my father said once that when you laugh the whole world laughs with you, cry and I'll give you something to cry about, you little bastard! That's what he said.
    • After Sultan, with a little help from his phalanx of armed bodyguards with laser sights on their guns, defuses a hostile situation.
      Bambi: My Daddy always says don't whip your shit out if you ain't ready to use it.
      Sol: Shut up!
      Julio: Bitch!
  • As Himself: A few figures who were connected to real life boxing show up essentially playing fictional version of themselves. The most prominent is probably Bert Sugar, a longtime boxing journalist and historian known among fans for his trademark appearance, (including always wearing a fedora and holding an unlit cigar) who plays a boxing journalist who always wears a fedora and who protests the absurdity of the fight and the way Sultan hypes it on a number of occasions.
  • Blatant Lies: This could probably have its own page:
    • Mitchell reading a letter from a boy in wheelchair saying if Conklin wins he believes he could walk again. It's a blank piece of paper.
    • Most things that Sultan says to the press.
    • Julio including Conklin in the rankings.
    • Johnny Windsor proclaiming that he is not a racist.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle:
    • 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.
    • Moments later Shabazz and Roper get into an argument that turns into a fist fight. Being horribly out of shape and fresh from another fight (even a quick fight) makes Roper slow, off his game, and in no condition to take on a top ranked boxer who is in shape and ready to fight. After only a couple of seconds Shabazz manages to hit Roper with a perfect punch and knock him out.
  • David Versus Goliath: A challenger who never fought as a professional but is training hard versus the overconfident champion who has dominated the sport and refuses to take the underdog challenger seriously. Goliath wins, and it's not even a contest.
  • Deconstructive Parody: In this movie the plucky underdog faces the harsh reality that sometimes the underdog doesn't get a happy ending.
  • Equal-Opportunity Evil: Sultan's inner circle of allies, advisors, and employees is rather color blind. Also, unlike some of his associates, who want to keep Bambi relegated to Eye Candy status and shoot down her ideas and suggestions in a misogynistic way, Sultan recognizes her good ideas and promptly promotes her within his organization.
  • Evil Mentor: Sultan, who is an amoral liar, cheater, and thief, takes Bambi and Mitchell under his wing. In Mitchell's case, it's explicitly to derail Mitchell's campaign to expose Sultan. Mitchell first becomes one of Sultan's most promising employees, then winds up becoming virtually a carbon copy of Sultan, and even seems to plan on trying to compete with Sultan as a promoter in the world of boxing by the end of the film. Bambi seems more content with being a competent employee.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Mitchell Kane sells out his documentary team and becomes (for awhile) Sultan's right hand man. 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 as far as he's concerned being Irish means Terry isn't actually white.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Sultan. His charisma and charm result in him twisting everyone around him into his victims or pawns. As a result he gets away with a ridiculous number of crimes, backstabbings, and double crossings and always profits from it, and even people who know what a ruthless cheat he is seem helpless to do anything about it once Sultan starts sweet talking them. But what else would one expect from a Don King parody?
  • Fish out of Water: Conklin is a dim witted hero utterly out of his depth in the cynical, manipulative, and exploitive world of boxing. In fact he can't even comprehend how bad the situation around him really is, and by the end after he's been knocked out by Roper he's a broken man who just wants to go home.
  • Gangsta Style: Shaabazz, Hassan and two Mooks ambush Sultan and co at Sultan's mansion brandishing guns horizontally. Cue lots and lots of pretty red lights focusing on Hassan. Even some of Sultan's bodyguards, who are presumably properly trained, 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 and also has lots of moral support and fans backing him. Meanwhile the undefeated champion lets himself get fat and hardly trains as a sign of his contempt for the challenger. During the main event, the challenger lands one good punch, before getting knocked out by an angry, overweight champion.
  • Here We Go Again!: After the fight between Conklin and Roper, Shabazz confronts Roper yet again, demanding a title shot. The two get into an argument that turns into a fist fight... and then to the shock of the entire boxing world, Shabazz lands a perfect punch and knocks Roper out cold. Sultan, who throughout the film had shown no interest in managing or setting up a fight with Shabazz (and likely considered Shabazz a terrible product to attempt to market to the American public, what with Shabazz being a very dark skinned, Jerkass, confrontational, angry black man) immediately sees that he now has an angle to market a Roper vs Shabazz fight. Sultan wastes no time and immediately starts working on bringing Shabazz under his wing, setting up the next chapter in Sultan's domination of boxing.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Michell Kane starts out as an apparently sincere crusading journalist who is trying to expose the Sultan's corrupt and brutal practices. By the end of the film, he decides to leave journalism and become part of the corrupt and brutal 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 a privacy intrusion by the press and angrily ends the interview. (This is likely based on Muhammad Ali, who gave massive amounts of time and money to charity during his career but utterly hated it being bought up, as he considered making a big deal out of one's charity to be bragging about it and the antithesis of true charity).
  • Hope Spot: By the time of the fight Roper is badly out of shape and blatantly doesn't care, while Conklin has been training hard and thinks this is his big shot. After an exchange of blows, Conklin lands a big punch that causes Roper to stagger into the ropes in slow motion... and then the film kicks back to normal speed, it turns out that Roper isn't meaningfully hurt, he's just mad that he just got made to look bad on TV. Roper quickly gets serious and the fight is over mere seconds later.
  • Hypocrite:
    • Kane postures that he's a crusading journalist/documentary filmmaker, but Sultan quickly figures out that he's just after a payday and is trying to get famous off an expose of a famous figure.
    • While he mostly comes off as incredibly dumb but goodhearted, the film frequently shows that Conklin is something of a poser instead of the goody two shoes he wants to be. We're introduced to him singing about how he doesn't need to feed his ego on stage in front of fans that Conklin gladly shows off for. Backstage, the supposed Buddhist is presented with several groupies and picks one to have sex with. Conklin decries racism but ignores the outbursts from his viciously racist trainer Johnny Windsor and is willing to hype the fight using footage from sparring bouts where Conklin wears a shirt with the Confederate flag and beats on a black sparring partners. During one interview he speaks with disgust of how Las Vegas uses and exploits women but it's pointed out that he literally just posed on the cover of Playboy magazine, which doesn't exactly have a squeaky clean reputation when it comes to exploiting women. (And again, the whole things with the groupies from his rock performances.)
  • Insistent Terminology: "It's Merlot"
  • Invincible Hero: This is the major reason they need the plot; Roper is so dominant in the sport that his matches are boring and the outcomes never in doubt. Shabbazz accuses Sultan of setting this up on purpose by keeping the real top fighters away.
  • 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 becomes much more willing to negotiate when the little red dots all congregate on his crotch.
  • Let's Get Dangerous!: The moment Terry stunned Roper with an overhand right, that was when the champ started taking the fight seriously and delivered a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown on his opponent.
  • Manipulative Bastard:
    • Sultan. He gets the boxing world, even the cynics, to believe that Terry is a legitimate contender for the Heavyweight Crown, and that's just the start of his antics throughout the movie. The very last scene of the movie is Sultan literally stepping over Roper's unconscious body after the confrontation between Roper and Shabazz, so he can sign Shabazz (Shabazz's current manager, Hassan, was also KO'd just moments before) to a contract and set up the next fight, with the clear implication that if Roper were to lose Sultan would immediately toss him aside and become the full time manager for Shabazz.
    • Sol is no slouch in the department either. After Mitchell Kane replaces him in Sultan's inner circle, Sol waits for a chance, and then gets Kane to start considering the potential that Conklin might win a fight with an out of shape Roper. This leads to Kane secretly signing a contract with Conklin behind Sultan's back. At this point, no matter what happens, Sol stands to gain; if Conklin actually wins and Kane becomes a big name in the boxing world, he owes Sol for giving him the idea. If Conklin doesn't win and Kane gets kicked out of Sultan's inner circle because of this backstabbing, Sol has a chance to get back in Sultan's good graces and win his old place back. And along the way he either gets payback at the boss who dismissed him or the guy who replaced him.
  • Mean Boss: Sultan rewards his subordinates when pleased with them, but even then he has a habit of casually threatening people and makes it abundantly clear that he is the boss, and displeasing him in any way could lead to very bad things happening. Various characters in his circle wind up getting a tongue lashing or, in Sol's case, an abrupt firing when Sultan doesn't care for their performance. Also, casually doing things like wielding a very hefty looking scimitar during a business meeting is not a sign of a nice man. But then, the man he is based on is a rather notorious figure who was involved in criminal activity and once was convicted of second-degree murder of an employee.
  • Meaningful Name: Conklin's band is called Massive Head Wound. Conklin is an ex-boxer who is revealed to have some brain damage.
  • Metaphorgotten: Mitchell Kane interviews Marvin Shaabazz and Hassan El Ruk'n and this confused exchange occurs:
    Shaabazz: Like my Daddy say, you out there, James, the poodle, pussy whatever your name is, Roper, if you a man be a man! Step up. Fight me. You aint fought nobody.
    Mitchell: Your Daddy said (Beat) what?
    Hassan: Just like my father have told me, when the green grass starts growing, you know, on the other side, somebody gotta cut the lawn.
    Mitchell: You know my father said once that when you laugh the whole world laughs with you, cry and I'll give you something to cry about, you little bastard! That's what he said!
  • Ms. Fanservice: For a film about boxing's excess and corruption, you can bet that there are more than a few women here just to look attractive:
    • 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.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: The film contains plenty of counterparts and analogues to real life figures involved in the boxing trade. Some examples include:
    • Samuel L. Jackson as Sultan is Don King. No two ways about it.
    • Today Damon Wayans’ James "Grim Reaper" Roper could certainly be considered a 90s version of Floyd Mayweather Jr., but back when it was made he was a spoof of Mike Tyson when Tyson was still at or near 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.
    • Even though he might not be meant as one, it's easy to see the parallels between Mitchell Kane and Bob Arum. Arum, like Kane, started out in a profession unrelated to boxing, (Arum was a lawyer while Kane was a journalist) got involved in boxing almost accidentally and became so enthralled with the boxing trade that he wound up becoming a promoter. Also, similar to how Kane first works with and then tries to supplant Sultan, Arum would vary between reluctantly partnering with Don King in order to promote specific fights to viciously competing against King to be the top promoter in boxing during the 80s and 90s.
  • 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 too.
  • Not So Invincible After All: Roper is an undefeated pro boxer who has knocked out all his opponents, usually so quickly and with such ease that it has made the public consider his fights too boring to watch. On top of that he only lost a single time as an amateur, when he was a teenager. After easily defeating Conklin even while in terrible shape, he gets into a brawl with the rightful top contender for the title and is knocked out with one punch.
  • 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.
  • Precision F-Strike: While swearing happens constantly in this movie, there's at least one case where a swear is just perfectly timed. When Julio is initially reluctant to rank Conklin in the Top 10, so Sultan asks what Julio wants as a bribe. When Julio initially doesn't go for money, sex, or drugs, Sultan asks if Julio wants power. Julio quickly agrees, saying power is what he really wants. Sultan responds with cold Death Glare and a calm "Fuck you." The intimidated Julio quickly backs down and decides that money, sex, and drugs are good enough after all.
  • Professional Butt-Kisser: The film is full of them, just as in real life many such groupies and hangers on can be found 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 done to make Sultan's contracts so difficult to enforce that it's easier for fighters to just go along with doing whatever Sultan wants. It's remarked in the movie that no sane lawyer would allow their client to sign such contract, which is why Sultan places his own people as his fighters' lawyers.
  • 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 reporter looking to make a name for himself by getting an expose on Sultan and who has blackmail material that Mitchell is willing to use. By the end of the conversation Mitchell is Sultan's publicist. This is in fact Sultan's MO, as every time he encounters a potential obstacle, (Conklin's drugged out nature and goody two shoes politics, Hassan and Shabazz trying to use force in order to get a title shot, boxing journalists protesting and pointing out the open corruption of Conklin being rated as a top contender, etc.) he finds an angle to take and a way to outfox his opponents. He never uses anything more than an occasional implied threat of violence, yet he always manages to get the better of people who are willing or threatening to be violent towards him.
  • Title Drop: Almost.
    Sultan: Is it Hype, or is it Hope?
  • Underdogs Never Lose: Conklin is played up as this bright and promising rookie who could take down the heavyweight champion. He even scores a good hit in the fight. Then said heavyweight champion gets serious.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Mitchel's reporter team. Sure they quit when Mitchel did a Face–Heel Turn but one would think that they still have enough evidence to ruin The Sultan's career.
  • Xanatos Gambit: Sol talking Mitchell into taking a shot at displacing Sultan is a win-win for him. If Mitchell wins he gets his old job back in the new regime, and if Mitchell loses he possibly gets his job back under under Sultan but definitely gets revenge on his replacement.
  • You Have Failed Me: A non-lethal version. When Sol, Sultan's PR man, finds himself completely unable to sell the public on the Roper vs Conklin fight, Sultan promptly fires Sol and replaces him with the tabloid journalist he just hired, Mitchell Kane. Kane promptly takes some new publicity angles and starts getting people interested in the bout. (The fact that Conklin lays out the rightful number one contender with one punch, even if it's a sucker punch, is an enormous help to both Kane and Sultan.)