The Great White Hope

 Photo: Wikimedia Commons Jack Johnson in 1915.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Jack Johnson in 1915.

David Moe
Sun City, Calif.

The Great White Hope is a 1967 play written by Howard Sackler, later adapted in 1970 into a film by the same name. It is a fictional idealized life story of a black heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson, and explores how prejudice created a demand for a “great white hope” who would defeat Johnson, and how this affected his life and career. It is the sad story of a man pitted against society.

The first “great white hope” to accept the challenge was Jim Jeffries, who came out of retirement to fight Johnson unsuccessfully in 1910. Johnson eventually lost to Jess Willard, a white boxer, in 1915. Johnson claimed he threw the fight, primarily because of the white animosity towards him. The rest is history.

It would be 20 years before another African American boxer was allowed to contend for the heavyweight title. In 1937, Joe Lewis defeated James J. Braddock. The last “great white hope” bout was in 1982, with Gerry Cooney vs. Larry Holmes.

 Photo: Wikimedia Commons Jack Johnson fights James J. Jeffries in 1910.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Jack Johnson fights James J. Jeffries in 1910.

This play was first performed in December 1967 at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where my friend, Molly Smith, is currently the artistic director. In 2000, the Arena Stage did a new production of the play in honor of the theatre’s 50th season.

The Great White Hope was adapted by Sacker for a film released in 1970, directed by Martin Ritt, starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, who both received best actor Academy Award nominations for their performances. In the movie The Kid, the professional heavyweight boxer, James J. Beattie (6’9”, 240 pounds), the #10-ranked world heavyweight contender and an Ali sparring partner, played the title role.

The question, “does art imitate life or does life imitate art?” is as old as drama itself. Is the current political season an effort to find “the great white hope” all over again?

David Moe was born in Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota, Morris in 1964 and received his M.A. degree from San Francisco State University in 1975. He spent four years in the Navy and 32 years in the insurance business. He is married to his wife, Thordis, and they have two daughters and four grandchildren. They now live in Sun City, California.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 30, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.