The Great White Hope

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The Great White Hope is a 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama written by Howard Sackler, later adapted in 1970 for a film of the same name. The film was directed by Martin Ritt, starring James Earl Jones, Jane Alexander, Chester Morris, Hal Holbrook, Beah Richards and Moses Gunn. Jones and Alexander, who appeared in the same roles in the stage version, both received Best Actor and Actress Academy Award nominations for their performances.

Set between 1910 and 1915, the story follows African-American boxing champion Jack Jefferson, who is loosely modeled on his real-life counterpart, Jack Johnson. The term, "The Great White Hope," reflects the racism and segregation of the era in which he fought. It is 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 success 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.

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About The Great White Hope

The Great White Hope was written in 1967 by Howard Sackler. The play was first produced by Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. and debuted on Broadway at the Alvin Theatre 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. The initial production at Arena Stage 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... read more about The Great White Hope

The Great White Hope Facts

Inspired by the story of the black boxer Jack Johnson, who was heavyweight champion from 1908 to 1915.

The play The Great White Hope won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1969.

The original Broadway production of The Great White Hope by Howard Sackler opened at the Alvin Theater in New York on October 3, 1968 and ran for 546 performances. James Earl Jones won the 1969 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play and recreated his stage role in the movie version. Jane Alexander won the 1969 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play and recreated her stage role in the movie version. The play author also wrote the screenplay for the movie version.

In addition to Jack Jefferson being based on Jack Johnson, several other characters are based on real life individuals. Frank Brady is a stand-in for Jim Jeffries, the former heavyweight champion who came out of retirement to try to end Johnson's title reign, Cap'n Dan is based on "Gentleman" Jim Corbett, the racist former champion refused to fight black men as champion, and the Kid is a stand-in for Jess Willard, the fighter who eventually beat Johnson for the title in Havana in 1915. Eleanor is a composite of two white women Johnson married, Etta Duryea (who, like Eleanor, committed suicide), and Lucille Cameron, who he fled the country with after being convicted.

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