It might seem like a tenuous connection at best on first glance, but for those looking for a great way to prepare for the thematic message of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained aside from overdosing on Sergio Corbucci’s bleak Spaghetti Westerns, there’s a funnier alternative that was directed in 1996 by one of QT’s producers on his latest project, starring two of the biggest stars in that film as part of a massive ensemble cast, deals with racism in a strikingly similar manner, and also manages to be one of the most underrated sports comedies of all time.
Producer and director Reginald Hudlin first became a noted filmmaker back when he was attending Harvard University when he created an award winning short film called House Party. That same film would be picked up by New Line Cinema and remade into a feature length megahit by the same name with rap dup Kid and Play in the leads. The job led to him directing the Eddie Murphy vehicle Boomerang (which still stands as one of the tipping point in Eddie’s career before moving on to more genteel fare), and his successes afforded him the ability to go a lot grander on his next project.
Set against the backdrop of professional boxing with a screenplay by Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump) and Tony Hendra, The Great White Hype came hot on the heels of a much publicized joke of a real life fight between a fresh out of prison Mike Tyson and some random ass white guy named “Hurricane” Peter McNeeley from Massachusetts who probably had no business ever being in the ring with the former champ. McNeely got over-hyped and threatened to wrap Tyson in a “cocoon of horror” and white America lost their shit. Here was a clean cut white boy who was going to beat up a former prisoner and the baddest man on the planet! Don King promoted the fight like it was Jesus fighting Satan with broken glass taped to their fists in an Outback Steakhouse. It was one of the highest grossing fights of all time… and it was over in less than two minutes.
Taking a healthy dose of inspiration as to what infamous fight promoter Don King had made of the sport of boxing, Hudlin landed an all star cast to tell a similar, satirical version of the same incident that looked to talk a bit about racism. Before he became the (now former) president of BET in 2005 and before he lampooned himself openly as a producer of the groundbreaking animated series The Boondocks, Hudlin had made a film that was too far ahead of its time to really be a financial success. It debuted at number four at the box office and sank like a stone shortly after, making just barely over $8 million. Reviews on The Great White Hype were mixed and Hudlin’s star as a director faded slightly with him going on to help things like Serving Sara and The Ladies Man, but looking back now, he was really onto something.
One doesn’t need to look further than the opening seconds of Hudlin’s film to see an obvious comparison to the same sort of racial satire that’s on display in Django Unchained. There are two black scorpions shown in a close up fighting to the death in the middle of the desert outside Las Vegas. Just as one of them seems to have the battle won, an enormous, shiny, and new Cadillac Brougham squashes them both dead under its wheels without even thinking about what happened.
The plot set-up generally follows the McNeely debacle to a T, minus the whole champ being in prison thing and using real names so they didn’t get sued. Turban wearing boxing promoter and loud mouth Reverend Fred Sultan (Samuel L. Jackson, still riding high on his Pulp Fiction success) can mind fuck even the best and brightest simply by repeating “I love you” and “You’re my brother!” The power he wields is clear and he disingenuously prays to every deity there possibly is, and sports a turban to cover up his blonde, Uncle-Tom-ish haircut.
He represents the heavyweight champion of the world James “The Grim Reaper” Roper (Damon Wayans, in one of his best performances), who just isn’t the draw he used to be. Undefeated in 38 fights, Sultan has built his product up far too heavily. Gate earnings and pay-per-view bounties have taken a nose dive, and he can’t even afford to pay the already pissed off champ what’s owed to him. The idea is presented to Sultan that there needs to finally be a white chump to fall to Roper instead of just watching him destroy more black people since fights with white boxers in main events have always meant bigger paydays for everyone involved.
The patsy they discover after some creative searching is Cleveland grunge rocker Terry Conklin (Battleship and Friday Night Lights director Peter Berg). He was a former Golden Glove winning amateur, is dumb as a stump, and was the only person who was able to knock out the former champ when both were coming up. Now a sensitive, goofy looking Buddhist, Sultan makes the young man a deal for $10 million that he can give to, in Conklin’s own words, “eradicating the homeless population and poverty situation in America, as well as the United States.”
On the surface, the social satire seems pretty obvious, but there’s a lot more going on in Hudlin’s film than just the main plotline to make things interesting. Documentarian Mitchell Kane (Jeff Goldblum, showing off how great he can be doing comedy) originally sets out to take down Sultan by way of an expose, but ends up becoming the promoter’s PR guy instead after his old hype man (a nicely understated Jon Lovitz) can’t put any good spin on what they’ve set up. Through Goldblum’s character the audience gets to see first hand how Sultan can butter someone up into taking a bribe, and how the power behind his advances are far more devastating than any potential gains from the person taking the bribe.
Roper and Sultan have also been openly ducking the true number one contender for the title, Marvin Shabazz (Michael Jace) for no real good reason other than to flat out ensure that the title never changes hands. Shabazz comes with his own personal hype man and mouthpiece, played by Django Unchained leading man Jamie Foxx as a camera shy shill who desperately wants to groom himself into a new version of Sultan.
Terry takes his work seriously, working with a professional trainer (Jonathan Rhys-Davies) who tries in vein to get him to become a racist to anger him since his talent level isn’t up to snuff. (His attempt to make the pacifist Terry seem like a beast to a black sparring partner by making him wear a confederate flag shit is one of the film’s slyest throwaway gags.) He’s only there because the owner of the casino housing the fight (Corbin Bernsen) and the head of the boxing commission (Cheech Marin) are both on his payroll. Terry even goes along with everyone saying he’s Irish just to sell more tickets (because if you’re a white boxer, you must be Irish). That joke becomes even funnier because most of the time when music plays him into a room some smartass starts playing Scottish bagpipes.
There’s a whole lot going on here to keep it all straight, but the script and direction are tightly constructed enough to make it work, but the real glue that holds the film together are the performances from the three leads working well within the crazy world that they seem to have constructed on their own.
In Django Unchained, Jackson delivers one of the best performances of his career as a house slave working in the employ of Leonardo DiCaprio’s boy emperor plantation owner during the final years of the antebellum southern US. In that film, Jackson plays a parrot on the shoulder of a more powerful man, but one with an unbeatable level of power among his fellow slaves due to his close relationship to the true mastermind. Sure, he’ll sell out his own kind to get ahead, but it’s a method of self-preservation that’s served him well over his almost 80 year career.
In The Great White Hype, Jackson delivers another one of his career best performances in the slave master role, and in many ways it’s even flashier than the one DiCaprio gets to play in Tarantino’s picture. Sultan has a harem of lackeys from every race and religion that would simply fall to their knees whenever he snaps his fingers. He’s the man who gets what he wants because everyone fears him; they begrudgingly respect him because they’re all opportunists themselves who see him as the true ideal of what they could be themselves, and because he’s mastered the art of psychological manipulation.
Sultan is the runner of the Mandingo fights in Hudlin’s film. He hasn’t gotten bored or sick of them, but they’ve been becoming less profitable. To maintain his power the money has to keep coming in to facilitate his deals. Instead of paying Roper, he just orders his staff to buy him two more cars. He talks down a frustrated, gun toting Shabazz by offering him a car. He offer’s Marin’s commissioner money, sex, and drugs to give Conklin a bullshit ranking to ensure a title fight, which he declines and says he wants power instead. Sultan, with Jackson’s most cold blooded line reading in the movie, simply says “fuck you” and the stooge in a suit is forced to acquiesce to the intimidation.
Jackson gets his most open opposition in the form of Goldblum’s tarnished idealist, and their relationship isn’t like anything else in the film. The cheekily monikered Kane knows a lot of secret factual information about Sultan, and while he’s clearly done his research, within two seconds of their first encounter in a steam bath and spa Sultan has already sized up and analysed who this reporter is. He’s not an idealist, but a shill out to make a name for himself by going after a high profile target. It seems like it isn’t the first time someone had tried that, and Kane emerges from the room with a job offer that he quickly takes to betray his ideals. The seed was also placed by Sultan at the exact same time to eventually have Kane become so seduced by this newfound sense of power that he has a tragic way of cutting him loose now that he’s no longer making the documentary.
On his own, Goldblum gets the chance to play a part early on in Hudlin’s slight, but amusing potshots at the artifice of documentary filmmaking. A scene with him attempting to interview Jace and Foxx underlines quite nicely just what a rube he truly is. The awkward pause Goldblum has become known for over the years would be put to excellent use here in a performance sure to appeal to fans of the actor.
As the pugilists, Berg doesn’t have to do a heck of a whole lot except play Terry as a potentially brain damaged dumbass that says more inappropriately stupid things than he probably should, but it’s hard not to feel for the guy as he actually himself becomes corrupted by what he sees around him. He never abandons his social morals, but he becomes just as cocky as the champion; an aggressive shit talker with not much to back up his words outside of an admittedly killer overhand right hook.
Wayans on the other hand gets used a bit more sparingly and wisely. He has his own entourage that will gladly kiss his ass, but he’s definitely the lone wolf who has stopped caring about his prey. His training for the joke of a fight thanks to his frustration at not being paid consists of downing pints of ice cream and smoking while doing push-ups. He’s constantly admonishing his own long suffering trainer that his “blackness will beat him.” Sultan’s pretty convinced of it, as well, but none of it matters since Roper refuses to even see Sultan or come to anything on time because he isn’t getting compensated for it. He doesn’t even get angry enough to show up for the fight until someone shuts off his inspirational tape of Dolemite. He knows he’s being used and he’s trying to fight back in his own way. Wayans doesn’t play Roper as a smart-ass, but as a deadly serious misanthrope who never smiles, but he probably finds everything going on pretty funny.
Much like The Boondocks, Hudlin peppers the film with wall to wall jokes while calling bullshit on the glitz and glamour of the fight game, equating it to something perfectly unwinnable and to a backhanded form of indentured servitude. It’s hard now to see why such a film came and went so quickly from theatres, especially considering that the four films that beat it out in its opening weekend didn’t have nearly the same amount of smarts. Maybe people thought it just cut too close to the bone despite the cast or maybe it’s because that all boxing films with the exception of Rocky have been box office poison. Either way, the time is ripe for a rexamination of this one.