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Theatre / The Great White Hope

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The Great White Hope is a 1967 play by Howard Sackler. It is a thinly fictionalized account of the life of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion.

The story opens in 1908, shortly after "Jack Jefferson" has won the heavyweight championship in Sydney, Australia. White people in the boxing world, appalled that a black man has won the heavyweight crown, recruit a retired white champion to fight Jefferson, and dub him the "White Hope". However, Jefferson wins again and retains his title.

As it happens, Jefferson came back from Australia with something else besides the heavyweight title: a white girlfriend, Eleanor Bachman, whom he met on the boat. His white manager Goldie desperately tries to warn Jefferson against carrying on with a white woman, but Jack and Eleanor are very much in love and he does not listen. Soon, Jefferson's enemies come up with a new way to destroy him: prosecute and imprison him on bogus charges of violating the anti-sex trafficking Mann Act.

James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander starred in the original stage production as Jack and Eleanor. The play, and Martin Ritt's 1970 film adaptation of the play, were Star Making Roles for both of them.

Definitely not to be confused for the film The Great White Hype.


  • Aside Comment: The play is filled with many lines addressed directly to the audience. In the printed script they are shown in bold type.
  • As You Know: A single paragraph of dialogue from Cap'n Dan in the opening moments establishes that Frank Brady retired a year ago, and various white boxers were expected to contend for his crown, but Jack Jefferson shocked everyone by coming out of nowhere to take it.
  • Black Republican: A character identified only as "A Distinguished Negro" meets with the Chicago DA, some detectives, and others who are brainstorming for some excuse to arrest Jefferson. The Distinguished Negro collaborates with the others, saying of Jefferson that "the majority of Negroes do not approve of this man or his doings. He personifies all that should be suppressed by law, and I trust that such suppression is forthcoming." This is clearly based on Booker T. Washington, who said very similar things about Jack Johnson in Real Life.
  • Call-Forward: Jack, irritated by some drunken officers in Germany, wishes that a war would start to keep officers busy. Soon another person at the club, a Negro from Germany's African colonies, says "Sey make here ser war soon, ja?"
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Loads and loads of this as the story depicts the racism of the early 20th century. One scene has a blackface performer do a horribly racist routine, shortly before the Jefferson-Brady fight.
  • Downer Ending: Eleanor commits suicide, followed by Jack, broken in spirit, throwing the fight and losing the championship belt in Havana.
  • Driven to Suicide: Eleanor drowns herself in Mexico, after Jack dumps her.
  • Dry Crusader: The Women's League For Temperance arrives at the club Jack has opened and stage a loud protest. Jack and his friends manage to scatter them.
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: When he can't get fights in Europe anymore, Jack winds up playing Uncle Tom in a humiliating cabaret show scheme from Uncle Tom's Cabin, with Eleanor onstage with him as Eva.
  • Funetik Aksent: The play uses this trope throughout in an effort to mimic early 20th century African-American speech.
    Clara: Ah'll put on a potta fresh cawfee.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Not just maligned, forbidden. Jack might have been allowed to get away with being a black heavyweight champion, but when it becomes known that he has taken a white woman for a lover, the forces of white supremacy set out to destroy him.
  • Mood Whiplash: A dreamily romantic scene where Jack and Eleanor are canoodling together in an isolated cabin is interrupted when the cops show up, and arrest Jack for violating the Mann Act.
  • Racial Face Blindness: How Jack escapes from the cops staking out his house, before eventually fleeing the country. A Negro League baseball team pays a visit, Jack changes clothes with one of the baseball players, and then leaves with the rest. Because, as Jack says, "You hear that sayin how all n***s look alike!"
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: One relatively short scene takes place entirely in French. It's a boxer from Poland arriving in France to fight Jefferson, who has left England.
  • Roman à Clef: The Jack Johnson story, with the names changed. The white ex-champion who came out of retirement to fight Johnson in 1910, Jim Jeffries, is called "Frank Brady."
    • While it's the Jack Johnson story, "Jack Jefferson" clearly has more than a bit of Muhammad Ali in him, being boisterous and defiant and bragging in rhyme, saying things like "Look like Frank 'bout to walk de plank!" (Ali saw the play and took it to be mostly about him.)
  • Spiteful Spit: At the very end the "Negro Boy" in Havana that has watched Jefferson throw the fight to the Kid, spits on him before leaving.
  • Throwing the Fight: Discussed, implied. The white people offer Jefferson a deal: leniency on his Mann Act charges (which were of course bogus) if he throws the fight to The Kid and lets white America reclaim the heavyweight crown. Come the climactic fight, and The Kid's corner gives the sign in the 8th round—and Jefferson keeps fighting, and nearly wins in the tenth, before finally running out of gas and losing. So did he throw the fight, or not? It's implied that he did after proving to himself that he could have won if he wanted to. This corresponds to Real Life, where Jack Johnson claimed he threw the fight to Jess Willard in Havana, a fight that actually went 26 rounds.
  • Title Drop: Frank Brady, the white ex-champion lured out of retirement to fight Jefferson is called the "White Hope".
  • The Trope Kid: The white boxer who defeats Jefferson in Havana at the end is only ever called "the Kid" and has no lines; he is of course only a symbol of white supremacy.
  • Where da White Women At?: Jack admits it. In a fanciful moment Eleanor says she sometimes fantasizes about getting a deep tan and changing her hair and basically putting on Blackface to be with Jack. He says it wouldn't work, becuase "Evvybody knows Ah gone off cullud women."
  • Woman Scorned: Clara, Jack's old girlfriend who dumped him and took off with her pimp. When she finds out that he's living with a white woman, she swears vengeance.