Tuesday, August 12, 2003


I must admit that the main reason I watched this was because it has Chester Morris in a small role (and his last role--he died, an apparent suicide, just before the film was released), but the real reason to appreciate this movie is that it is proof that James Earl Jones once had a full-blooded acting career; it seems that Hollywood couldn't quite figure out how to best use him until they discovered his voice-over talent. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, this is a fictionalized version of the life of boxer Jack Johnson (here named Jack Jefferson), the first black heavyweight champion. A brash, confident person who is uncomfortable being held up as a token figure standing in for his entire race, he takes a devil-may-care attitude toward living his life to its fullest in the public spotlight. When he flaunts his white girlfriend (Jane Alexander), the powers that be, in both the sport and the law, have a reason to try to take him down. He is arrested (because miscegenation laws prohibit him from taking Alexander across state laws) but escapes the country before he can be imprisoned. He keeps his boxing career going for a time, but eventually things start to fall apart. He drives Alexander away--I think he believes he does it for her own good, but it's still a startlingly cruel act--and she kills herself, which takes much of his spark away from him, leading to a sad but somewhat hopeful ending. For a boxing movie, there are very few scenes of boxing until the final bout in Havana. Knowing Jones mostly as the voice of Darth Vader, or in small roles in movies like FIELD OF DREAMS, I was stunned at how good he is here. He makes his complex character fierce but thoughtful and we are sympathetic with him throughout. Alexander is almost as good in her first movie role--both of them were rightfully nominated for Oscars. Chester Morris is a big-shot, old-time boxing promoter who actually seems a bit torn about his own role in Jones' downfall; other cast members include Hal Holbrook, Beah Richards, and Robert Webber, but this is largely a two-person show.

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