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The Great White Hope is a 1967 play written by Howard Sackler, later adapted in 1970 for a film of the same name. The play was first produced by Arena Stagemarker in Washington, D.C.marker and debuted on Broadwaymarker at the Alvin Theatremarker on October 3, 1968 for a run of 546 performances, directed by Edwin Sherin with James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander in the lead roles. In 1969, Jones won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play and Alexander won Best Actress in a Play for their respective portrayals of Jack Jefferson and Eleanor Bachman in the Broadway production.


The Great White Hope tells a fictional idealized life story of boxing champion Jack Johnson, here called Jack Jefferson. Acting as a lens focused on a racist society, The Great White Hope explores how segregation and prejudice created the demand for a "great white hope" who would defeat Johnson and how this, in turn, affected the boxer's life and career.

While the play is often described as being thematically about racism, this is not, it seems, entirely how Sackler viewed his work. Though certainly not denying the racist issues confronted in the play, Sackler once said in an interview, "What interested me was not the topicality but the combination of circumstances, the destiny of a man pitted against society. It's a metaphor of struggle between man and the outside world. Some people spoke of the play as if it were a cliché of white liberalism, but I kept to the line straight through, of showing that it wasn't a case of blacks being good and whites being bad. I was appalled at the first reaction."

In a comment reflecting on both the racist theme dealt with in the play and Sackler's notion that the play is about a man fighting society, Muhammad Ali, greatly impressed with James Earl Jones' performance in the play, apparently commented to the actor, "That's my story. You take out the issue of white women and replace it with the issue of religion. That's my story!" Ali was fighting being drafted into the army at the time on grounds of being a conscientious objector.


The initial production at Arena Stage, paid for, at least in part, by two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, was so well received that the entire original cast, including Jones and Alexander, moved to Broadway with the production in 1968. It was the first time the cast of a regional theater production was brought to Broadway. Using proceeds from his screenwriting contact, Sackler substantially funded the Broadway production for some US$225,000. In 2000, Arena Stage mounted a new production of The Great White Hope in honor of the theater's 50th season.

Film adaptation

The Great White Hope was adapted by Sackler for a film released in 1970, directed by Martin Ritt, starring James Earl Jones, Jane Alexander, Chester Morris, Hal Holbrook, Beah Richards and Moses Gunn. Jones and Alexander, who both had starred in the theatrical version, each received best actor Academy Award nominations for their performances. The Oscars for their categories were ultimately presented to George C. Scott for Patton, and Glenda Jackson for Women in Love.

In the movie, "the Kid," or the "great white hope" was played by the professional heavyweight boxer, James J. Beattie (6'9", 240 pounds), the #10-ranked world heavyweight contender and an Ali sparring partner.

"The great white hope"

The term, "the great white hope," reflects the racism and segregation of the era in which Johnson fought. It could be argued that Johnson, the first African American to hold the World Heavyweight Championship title, was the best fighter of his generation. Yet, white reaction against Johnson's win and his very public relationships with white women was so strong that, in 1912, the United States Congress, concerned that scenes of Johnson pummeling white boxers would cause race riots, passed a law making it illegal to transport prizefight films across state lines. "The great white hope" is a reference to the boxer whom whites hoped would finally defeat Johnson.

William Warren Barbour, who won the Americanmarker and Canadianmarker amateur heavyweight championship in 1910 and 1911, was "Gentleman Jim" Corbett's choice to be "the great white hope," but Barbour declined to take up the mantle. Some thirty years later, it was Barbour who, as U.S. Senator (R) from New Jerseymarker in 1940, worked successfully to repeal the 1912 law prohibiting interstate transportation of boxing film footage. About thirty years after that, William Warren Barbour's nephew, Thomas Barbour, played four small parts, including Sir William Griswald, in the Broadway production of The Great White Hope.

The first "great white hope" to accept the challenge was Jim Jeffries, who came out of retirement to fight Johnson unsuccessfully in 1910. Johnson's title was eventually lost to Jess Willard, a white boxer, in 1915. There was, apparently, some controversy surrounding Willard's win, with Johnson claiming he threw the fight. In part because of white animosity toward Johnson, it was twenty years before another African American boxer was allowed to contend for the world professional heavyweight title. In 1937, Joe Louis, greatly respected by both blacks and whites, defeated James J. Braddock, "The Cinderella Man," to become the second African American to hold the world heavyweight championship title.

In 2009, U.S. Representative Lynn Jenkins, responding to a question about the 2010 mid-term elections, noted that the Republican Party was struggling to find a "great white hope."

Awards and nominations


Further reading

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