THE GREAT WHITE HOPE (1970). Director: Martin Ritt.
Although inspired by the life of black boxer Jack Johnson, this movie -- based on the play by Howard Sackler -- is not really a biography as such. James Earl Jones actually plays "Jack Jefferson," a black heavyweight champion a few years after the turn of the century. White boxing promoters talk a Caucasian boxer out of retirement and tell him that he's the "Great White Hope" to knock Jefferson off his perch. Jefferson is not just hated because he's black and a champion, but because he's living with a white woman, Eleanor Backman (Jane Alexander), and this not only infuriates many whites but some blacks as well. As it examines their tragic relationship, it presents varying points of view from both black and white communities, and looks at the tensions that ultimately drive the couple apart. This is a good movie with some excellent scenes, but it isn't as great as it could have been and it's hard to figure out why. The actors are all very expert -- although they seem to be acting more than actually living their roles -- and perhaps Ritt's direction is too low-key for such dynamic material. Whatever the case, Jones undeniably registers a great deal of charisma and star presence.
Verdict: Worth a look. ***.