I have to admit to being a little baffled as to why they didn't just call the character in the movie Jack Johnson. The Great White Hope is so clearly based on Johnson's life-story that it seems odd to provide any subterfuge. The film calls him Jack Jefferson, which makes the subterfuge seem even sillier to me.
One thing the fake name did do for me is that I kept asking "Did that really happen?" "They didn't do that to him, did they?" "They couldn't have ended up in Budapest performing in a production of Uncle Tom's Cabin could they have?" That's probably not all bad. I mean, I ended up looking Johnson up and spending an hour reading about him after the movie was over.
The Great White Hope is a boxing movie only partially. Much of the boxing happens off screen – a choice that would probably never be made by a filmmaker working today and probably a formal device left over from the original play – and instead the focus is on the ingenious methods these racist jackasses in the United States invented as a way of punishing Jack Johnson for being a powerful pugilist and for loving a white woman.
But TGWH is, even more than that, one of those 1970s lonely-man films of which I am so fond, where the protagonist's morals are questionable and when the film ends he goes off into an uncertain, confusing future, but faces that future with a characteristic unflappability and fortitude. TGWH is a character study and an absolutely fascinating one. The writing is also excellent, though as I noted above, it's often a little too stage-y.
Jane Alexander is also great in the movie, and TGWH also boasts a fierce performance by Network actress Marlene Warfield (god I love her) and an appearance from the amazing Beah Richards.
One more thing. I have watched two James Earl Jones movies recently (the other was 1974's Claudine, which I loved), and both appear in this hilarious mashup, which my friend Walt showed me this summer. Enjoy: