“He could beat any white man in the world. He just couldn't beat all of them.”
This movie has a tragic story, but it is very important for several reasons. It is the slightly fictionalized tale of Jack Johnson’s experience as the first black heavyweight boxing world champion. The film names him Jack Jefferson instead of Johnson, but the story is almost the same. It also has a breakthrough performance by James Earl Jones as Johnson. Jones was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar (also Golden Globe nominations) for his performance as “Jack Jefferson.”
The film begins with the statement “much of what follows is true.” The credits roll while an old time jazz tune plays. (Unfortunately, I could not find a sound track for sale, but there is a very good selection of music in the movie.) A strip showing a boxing match and its fans joins the roll of credits. The boxers are only shown from the knees down, but one can see that a black man is fighting a white man. The black man wins.
The scene shifts to a crowd of white men attempting to persuade another that he must come out of retirement to beat the black challenger, who has eliminated all the competition for the world heavyweight championship. (Be warned that this film was made before the current era of political correctness. The dialog reflects the way people in the very early 20th century actually talked, not how many people today might wish they had talked.)
Cap’n Dan (R.G. Armstrong), Pop Weaver (Chester Morris) and others in the crowd eventually convince Frank Brady (Larry Pennell) to fight Jack Jefferson. They figure “the fight of the century” will take place on July 4th in Reno, Nevada. Jefferson’s manager Goldie (Lou Gilbert) accepts the potentially unfriendly location and an 80-20 financial split (Jefferson will get the 20) for Jefferson’s chance to win the championship belt.
The scene shifts to Jack Jefferson working with his trainer Tick (Joel Fluellen) while a white female watches. The woman, Eleanor Backman (Jane Alexander) inspires Jack to take a small break from his training to kiss her and call her his lady luck. Jack’s training is about to resume when his manager arrives, telling Jack of the plans and the surrounding “hoopla” for what is being billed as “the fight of the century.” Goldie expresses dismay bordering on panic when he discovers Eleanor’s presence. He expects that may be too much. Eleanor moves to the background as the press enters.
The boxing pressmen are eager to get Jack Jefferson’s views on the upcoming fight. They say the general feeling of the white population casts Brady as the “redeemer of the race” and ask Jefferson if he is the black hope. He quips that he is black and hoping. When Goldie says he should “answer ‘em straight” Jack replies: “Hey look man, I ain’t fightin’ for no race, I ain’t redeemin’ nobody. My momma told me Mr. Lincoln done that. Ain’t that why you shot him?” (What a line and delivered with Jones’ wonderful voice.) At that point, a former female interest of Jack’s enters aiming to attack Eleanor. People intercede, but now the pressmen take notice of Jack’s new female interest. They agree not to write about Eleanor before the fight.
That much of the movie serves to introduce most of the main characters, with the exception of the government men: District Attorney Al Cameron (Hal Holbrook) and “Bureau agent” Dixon (Robert Webber). You might be wondering what government men are doing in a movie about boxing. That is a good question, but now perhaps you start to perceive that this movie about the first black heavyweight boxing champion isn’t primarily a movie about boxing. In many ways, it is another movie like Cool Hand Luke or Tucker, with the extra aspect of race added to the “outsider” mix. Like Preston Tucker, Jack Johnson (Jefferson) was an individualist and a ground breaker. Also like Tucker, Johnson's successful efforts invoked the response of men of the state defending the status quo.
James Earl Jones is magnificent in this role. More than any other actor this is his movie. Although Jones made his debut performance in Dr. Strangelove, Jack Jefferson was his breakthrough role. Director Martin Ritt also excels with this film, as he often does making movies about outsiders as in Hombre. If you don’t know the story of Jack Johnson, this movie is a good introduction. If you do know it and are a general admirer of Johnson, Jones’ performance should please you. In any case, this story needs to be more widely known and The Great White Hope with its excellent performances does a great job of telling it.