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  Great White Hype, The Think Outside The Box
Year: 1996
Director: Reginald Hudlin
Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Jeff Goldblum, Damon Wayans, Peter Berg, Corbin Bernsen, Jon Lovitz, Cheech Marin, John Rhys-Davies, Salli Richardson, Jamie Foxx, Rocky Carroll, Albert Hall, Susan Gibney, Michael Jace, Duane Davis, Lamont Johnson, Sam Whipple
Genre: ComedyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: James “The Grim Reaper” Roper (Damon Wayans) is the heavyweight champion of the world, and more or less feels invincible as he puts paid to another challenger in front of the Las Vegas crowd and the television cameras. He is managed by The Reverend Fred Sultan (Samuel L. Jackson), one of the richest men in boxing thanks to his savvy with raising huge amounts of money for the fights he arranges and ensuring the publicity machine goes into overdrive to drum up that income, but oh dear, once he and his entourage are back in their hotel suite there’s some bad news. Word is that the revenue was down fifty percent from their last match, which is not so good when they’re so used to dealing with such huge sums normally, so what can be done to arrest that decline?

Aside from Quentin Tarantino’s frequent flying of the flag for addressing racial issues in his successful movies, Americans dealing with the problem of inequality between the races were not really to be welcomed, never mind seen at the cinema. There were occasional entries in the nineteen-nineties where the subject was upfront, quite often in works by African American directors, most prominently Spike Lee, but there was an uneasy reluctance to tackle them in anything very much aside from social commentary pictures which didn’t really generate the major profits. Take The Great White Hype, a comedy that was well up for presenting some ugly truths about how racism can manipulate the population, but did next to nothing when it was released.

Was it because audiences wanted the comedy and didn’t want the commentary, which made them uncomfortable? Certainly Ron Shelton, who penned the original script, was unhappy with the results, though that was largely because Spinal Tap alumnus Tony Hendra was brought in to rewrite it, and Shelton was dissatisfied with what was done to his screenplay, and perhaps it was significant they were both white Americans in the first place. Or maybe not: director Reginald Hudlin was black, and he appeared to have an ear for the dialogue as delivered by a cast of whom over half were black as well, leaving a project that had a few more laughs than might be expected from what its poor reputation would indicate.

The racial aspect was not merely down to the cast and director, it was down to the plot as well. The Don King-esque Sultan decides that the takings are reduced not because the fight was boring, it went a few rounds before the knockout and featured a popular champion, but because of the colour of the participants. What America really needed, he tells his underlings, is a white challenger to the black supremacy in the ring, admit the racism inherent in the sport’s dwindling popularity and embrace it as a profit-maker. His solution? Find the only man to have decked Roper, albeit at an amateur level, and train him up to do it again: Terry Conklin (Peter Berg), now a heavy metal singer who has an altruistic streak that leads him to agree, but only if he can donate his ten million dollar fee to the homeless of America.

The methods Sultan builds this up as a significant event were testament to the usefulness of cynicism in boxing movies, encouraging Roper not to take the upcoming bout seriously so he will be out of shape by the time it arrives (though Wayans’ fake plastic belly could have been more convincing), and trumpeting Conklin as the next great Irish American brawler, even though he’s not actually Irish American, it’s just what white America wants to hear. So far, so provocative, and with an excellent cast this had the makings of something truly pointed, so why was it once it was over were you left with the impression they had their target on the ropes a few times, yet never quite had it dropping to the canvas in a complete daze? They didn’t quite throw in the towel, but with all this set-up you wanted to see a sledgehammer blow to finish it off, and oddly it stepped back, leaving some fine performances (Jackson in his element as the smartest loudmouth in the room, for example), some funny lines, an impression of the tensions in its home nation, but a lingering sense of a missed opportunity. Not bad, nevertheless. Music by Marcus Miller.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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