I love movies. One of my all-time favorites is the 1970 film, The Great White Hope, which found onscreen success after a heralded theatrical run on Broadway. Venerable actor James Earl Jones starred in both the stage and film versions as a boxer named Jack Jefferson. Jefferson was a fictional character, but he was based upon the real-life experiences of Jack Johnson, heavyweight boxing champion, .
For some reason, the political news of the day has me thinking a lot about this movie.
If you have never seen this classic, you ought to check it out. Jones, a magnificent actor whose voice is part of cinema history as the dangerous Darth Vader, is onscreen in pure masculine glory as a champion boxer. And although the script took some creative license with the actual facts of Johnson’s life, it stayed true to the fascinating dramatic tensions of a man who wanted to be the best in his field.
More recently, an excellent PBS documentary by Ken Burns, Unforgiveable Blackness, explored the facts of Johnson’s life. It turns out that the facts of Johnson’s life are more compelling that the fiction. In 1908, after a 14-round fight in Australia, Johnson fought and defeated a Canadian boxer, Tommy Burns, to become the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world. So unthinkable was it to sports fans and commentators in these segregated times to accept this new champion that a backlash emerged. One of the most prominent voices to rise opposing Jack Johnson was that of sportswriter and novelist Jack London, who may be best known for his fiction, Call of the Wild. London was a vivid writer, and not above a bit of high-blown language. He could also turn a memorable phrase. He coined one of them, as he spoke of the “disgrace” of an African-American in a newspaper column, by calling for a “Great White Hope” to defeat Johnson.
Media commentator and screenwriter John Ridley does a brilliant job of detailing the way in which media, sports hype and London’s influence helped to elevate Johnson’s eventual match with a White fighter named Jack Jeffries to epic proportions. Johnson was not criticized for his boxing techniques or performance. Instead, he was demonized for his “audacity” win the title. He was attacked for everything from his appearance, his personality, and his choice of women. By the time they met in the ring, audiences no longer saw this as a contest between two individuals, but as a referendum on morality and universal life values.
Fast-forward to August 19, 2011, when Kansas congresswoman Lynn Jenkins openly stated that the Republican Party was struggling to find a “great white hope” to defeat President Obama in the 2012 election—only to apologize for her choice of words. I don’t believe there has been any real apology for the actual sentiment.
So why have I been thinking about this movie a lot lately? Watching the Republican primaries bob and weave their way through each state only heightens the comparison. Political rhetoric describing the primary season debates among the candidates illustrates the virulent “fight” analogies in place as the Republic contenders describe how they want to “knock out” Obama and remove him from the White House. And, although the election of a U.S. President is a serious thing, the way it as being discussed as a choice about our “way of life” has inescapable undertones. Still, studies show that the Republican primary season continues to be fraught with uncertainties about who the best candidate should be. It seems that many are still hoping for the perfect colossus of a candidate who will appear upon the political stage and obliterate all opposition. From the list of previous hopefuls who have dropped out, to the names that are still being bandied about, to the roller coaster-like results from the state caucuses, it seems clear that all of the misguided yearnings for a “great white hope” will be thrust upon the last man standing.
I’m not the first to call attention to the racial undertones of this election season, nor will I be the last. But this discussion is more than skin-deep. Because if there is a parallel between the mediated opposition Johnson experienced and what Obama faces now, it is also based on competence and even excellence. There are no attacks on someone like, say, African American rapper Flavor Flav, despite Ann Coulter’s misguided attempt to compare him with the President. Pure buffoonery is not as threatening compared to serious intent.
Jack Johnson was a target, in part, because he was an enormously talented man. Besides his prowess in a tough sport, he was an inventor who registered a patent for a popular tool. After he retired from boxing, he headlined a traveling vaudeville show that both capitalized on and poked fun of his boxing career. Turns out, he was a talented entertainer too.
Maybe the political debate will shift more to performance and fact issues and away from hysteria and hype as time goes on. Any takers?
In the meantime, I just can’t help thinking of that movie.