While considered a lot more realistic and natural than Professional Wrestling, boxing is perceived as a more ‘respectable’ sport, but the drama surrounding each bout can be just as sensational as the most scripted Sports Entertainment match. In the year 2000, a film playfully explored the showmanship and the drama outside the ring, and the heavy topic of race, belief, and hype itself, in The Great White Hype.
Boxing promoter Rev. Fred Sultan is losing money hand over fist, even though he’s managing the heavyweight champion, James “The Grim Reaper” Roper. As Sultan so bluntly puts it, “The competition is too Black”, and audiences are getting bored with these similar matches. The solution is simple: to find an atypical fighter that can face Roper, despite the rightful contender. His luck may come from Terry Conklin, a retired fighter, who fronts a rock band, he managed to provide serious competition early in Roper’s career. That was long ago, yet Sultan feels he can build him up to be a contender again, even if he has to corrupt the sport to do so. As Sultan puts his showmanship magic to create a fairytale match that will drive in the crowds. Will the audience believe the hype, but will the boxers too?
While the boxing scene in the mid-to-late 90s might seem like a niche topic for a satire, The Great White Hype depicts scenes that you can imagine would go on in the penthouse suites and training gyms. There is some broader insight to be had from the film’s exploration of its themes, one that feels interesting to explore in the 2020s versus the 90s, when these issues were rising. The dialogue and script are sharp and witty enough, drawing on the experiences of Hendra and Shelton. Cynicism is the byword of the day, as reformer-reporter, is quickly embraced by Sultan’s entourage. Meanwhile, Marvin Shaabazz, who was next in line for the shot now has his opportunity taken away, and Terry Conklin, who has given up boxing (and violence in general), must now awkwardly pick up his gloves.
We get some great pieces-to-camera from Jeff Goldblum’s character, but he is not alone. The likes of Jon Lovitz, Chech Martin and John Rhys Davis, and Damon Wayans as Roper just show off the amassed cast. Eyes, however, are drawn to Samuel L. Jackson, whose charisma and resourcefulness bring a hidden depth to the supposed showiness of Sultan. The soundtrack is also a competent collection, featuring Hip-Hop offerings from Insane Clown Posse, all the way to the Wu-Tang Clan. Accompanied by onscreen appearances from Method Man and Brian Seltzer round up the musical pedigree.
The Great White Hype has a peculiar energy to it, one that feels fascinating to behold almost 22 years later. Its depictions of a less reported aspect of the worlds of sports and entertainment are both heightened and bear a kind of uncanny verisimilitude. It feels like the viewers are almost dazzled by the patter of the Reverend himself, and the accumulation of creatives and telling of a unique story, from the many dramas that take place both inside and around the ring. If you can suspend your disbelief and be taken in, The Great White Hype exceeds as a contender, that might even go the distance.
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