The Great White Hope is a 1967 play written by Howard Sackler adapted in 1970 for a film of the same name. The play was first produced by Arena Stage in Washington, DC and debuted on Broadway at the Alvin Theatre on 3 October 1968 for a run of 546 performances, directed by Edwin Sherin with stars James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander.
While the play is often described as being thematically about racism, this is not, it seems, entirely how Sackler viewed his work. Though certainly not denying the racist issues confronted in the play, Sackler once said in an interview, "What interested me was not the topicality but the combination of circumstances, the destiny of a man pitted against society. It's a metaphor of struggle between man and the outside world. Some people spoke of the play as if it were a cliché of white liberalism, but I kept to the line straight through, of showing that it wasn't a case of blacks being good and whites being bad. I was appalled at the first reaction."
In a comment reflecting on both the racist theme dealt with in the play and Sackler's notion that the play is about a man fighting society, Muhammad Ali, greatly impressed with James Earl Jones' performance in the play, apparently commented to the actor, "That's my story. You take out the issue of white women and replace it with the issue of religion. That's my story!" Ali was fighting being drafted into the army at the time on grounds of being a conscientious objector.
William Warren Barbour, who won the American and Canadian amateur heavyweight championship in 1910 and 1911, was "Gentleman Jim" Corbett's choice to be "the great white hope," but Barbour declined to take up the mantle. Some thirty years later, it was Barbour who, as U.S. Senator (R) from New Jersey in 1940, worked successfully to repeal the 1912 law prohibiting interstate transportation of boxing film footage.
The first "great white hope" to accept the challenge was Jim Jeffries, who came out of retirement to fight Johnson unsuccessfully in 1910. Johnson's title was eventually lost to Jess Willard, a white boxer, in 1915. There was, apparently, some controversy surrounding Willard's win, with Johnson claiming he threw the fight. In part because of white animosity toward Johnson, it was twenty years before another African American boxer was allowed to contend for the world professional heavyweight title. In 1937, Joe Louis, greatly respected by both blacks and whites, defeated James J. Braddock, "The Cinderella Man," to become the second African American to hold the world heavyweight championship title.