Very much like politicians on the campaign trail, most mainstream Hollywood movies try to be all things to all people. And that goes a long way toward explaining why possibly divisive subjects are treated so gingerly, if at all, in the glossy attractions at your friendly neighborhood multiplex.
More often than not, filmmakers risk serious spinal injury as they bend over backward to avoid offending anyone. In Celtic Pride, for example, we have the ineffably weird spectacle of two white, working-class Boston sports fans strenuously insisting that they're not at all racist, even though they've just kidnapped a black NBA superstar. Race, they claim, had little to do with their crime, and absolutely nothing to do with their animosity toward their captive. A friend who hails from Boston laughed out loud at this. Not, though, for the reason the filmmakers likely intended. She knew all too well what real working-class white guys in her old neighborhood would likely have to say about blacks in general, and fabulously successful blacks in particular. The racially enlightened characters on-screen had little to do with her real-world experiences.
Since this sort of timidity is the norm in most major-studio releases, an aggressively rude piece of work such as The Great White Hype may seem better than it really is, if only because it has the courage of its own brazenness. Actually, the movie is something of a mess, stuffed with too many people and subplots to keep track of easily. Director Reginald Hudlin (House Party) was clearly too eager to encourage on-the-set improvisations, and too casual about dealing with such niceties as plot, pacing and character consistency. And yet, Great White Hype is so gleefully impolite, so irresponsibly uninhibited, it serves as an impudent antidote to the hypocrisy and half-truths of more polished Hollywood confections.
The movie is a slapdash satirical comedy about a heavyweight championship bout that generates the worst imaginable excesses of venality, stupidity and interracial animosity. White and blacks are represented in roughly equal numbers, with equally unflattering caricatures. At the heart of the story is the Reverend Fred Sultan, an African-American boxing promoter who bluntly announces that he needs "a white heavyweight contender worse than white America does" because fight fans "are tired of seeing niggers beating up other niggers." (The "n" word has been dubbed over in the film clips made available to TV stations, indicating that the people who sell the movies at 20th Century Fox aren't quite as ballsy as the people who make them.) Sultan, a showman who dresses almost as flamboyantly as he speaks, plays the race card with all the nonchalant skill of a blackjack dealer. His only redeeming quality is that he's a lot more up-front about it than most other folks who exploit the racial divide for financial or political gain.
Samuel L. Jackson plays Sultan as a grandiloquent manipulator who is equal parts Don King, Al Sharpton and Jules Winnfield (the last, you may recall, was the zealous hit man Jackson portrayed in Pulp Fiction). As Hype begins, Sultan is worried that his longtime meal ticket, heavyweight champ James "The Grim Reaper" Roper (Damon Wayans), is losing his appeal. Attendance at boxing matches is down. Pay-per-view income is declining. What Sultan needs to regenerate public interest is a worthy white opponent to pit against his star. Failing that, he'll settle for a white guy who will sell tickets.
What Sultan ultimately finds is Terry Conklin (Peter Berg), a dimwitted white hunk who sings for a grunge-rock band known as Massive Head Wound. It has been several years since Conklin hung up his gloves as a Golden Gloves amateur. But while he was fighting, he did something that no professional has ever done: he bested a then-amateur named James Roper. That long-forgotten victory is enough for Sultan to promote Conklin as a great white hope. All Sultan has to do is pull some strings with the boxing commission authorities, stoke the fires of his well-oiled hype machine -- and convince the foggy headed but politically correct Conklin that fighting would be the perfect way to finance various do-gooder projects.
In the world according to Great White Hype, there are only two kinds of people: those who have already sold out, and those who haven't yet received a good offer. Jeff Goldblum plays a documentary filmmaker who's determined to expose Sultan; his idealism lasts only as long as it takes for Sultan to find a place for him on the payroll. Cheech Marin plays a boxing official who's already on the payroll, and who raises only pro forma complaints when he's ordered to rank Conklin as a prime contender. This underhanded action greatly rankles Hasan El Ruk'n (Jamie Foxx), the manager of the legitimate number one contender. But hey, it doesn't take much for Hasan to get over his moral outrage.
Sultan is the most shamelessly corrupt of a thoroughly crooked lot. But he somehow remains more charismatic than equally corrupt wheeler-dealers played by Corbin Bernsen, Jon Lovitz and Rocky Carroll.
The Great White Hype might have been even funnier, and its satire more sharply focused, if the filmmakers had ever decided just what they wanted to do with Conklin, a rope-a-dope dullard who makes the mistake of believing his own hype. At first, the character comes off as a sleazy rock and roller who only pays lip service to social justice. (He talks a good game when it comes to condemning sexism, but he enjoys a nightly parade of willing groupies.) A few scenes later, however, Conklin seems utterly sincere, albeit no less dimwitted, when he promises to use his share of the purse to end "the homelessness situation." It's never quite clear if Conklin is motivated by greed-fueled hubris or misplaced self-confidence. Is he an innocent who's swimming with sharks, or a self-delusional hypocrite? The movie tries to have it both ways, and the character ends up being too fuzzy to serve as a worthy target for hard-edged satire.
On the other hand, Wayans knows just what he's doing as Roper, and just how to wring every possible laugh from the character's arrogant self-indulgence. Roper never takes Conklin seriously, and doesn't bother with heavy training before the bout. Indeed, the only time we see him running, he's chasing an ice-cream truck. By the night of the title match, he's grossly overweight. That proves to be a serious handicap. For a while, at least -- almost as long as it took for another black champ, Mike Tyson, to fight the last great white hopeful. You do remember Peter McNeely, don't you?
-- Joe Leydon
The Great White Hype.
Directed by Reginald Hudlin. With Samuel L. Jackson, Damon Wayans and Peter Berg.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.