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Themes of Power in the Great White Hype

October 26, 2017 Leave a comment

Easily my favorite Samuel L. Jackson role is that of the Reverend Sultan in 1996’s the Great White Hype. Indeed, this often overlooked movie is one of my favorites, and the Rev is largely to thank. An imposing figure in gold and a turban, owning the screen with his wide grin, the Reverend Sultan is a boxing promoter clearly modeled on Don King. He understands and wields power as effectively as anyone in Game of Thrones, just in a different context.

It is easy to think the central theme of the Great White Hype is racism. The story revolves around a heavyweight boxing champion, played by Damon Wayans (in a role slightly reminiscent of Mike Tyson), who has become so good no one wants to pay to see his fights anymore. The Rev solves the problem of falling ticket sales by finding a white guy to challenge the champ. The Rev uses racism–not the vicious kind but a more subtle, competitive version that is easy to deny–to whip up interest in the fight and sell tickets in one fight between the champ, James Roper, and the man who beat him as an amateur, named Terry Conklin. His strategy works. White and black Americans become divided (again, not viciously; the fighting stays in the ring) on which fighter they support, and all are inflamed with the excitement of “their side” beating the other.

The subject of race is reasonably well explored for an average-length comedy that doesn’t preach to you. It is not treated as a simple division between black and white or whatever other color. We see how clever people use racism as a tool to blind others and then lead them in a certain direction. “It ain’t about race,” says the champ on hearing of the Reverend Sultan’s plan, “it’s about boxing.” The Rev laughs in his face. Divisions among black people are touched on here and there, as when the champ says “A white contender? The two words don’t even go together. It’s like saying ‘black unity’.” And the challenger gets named “Irish” Terry Conklin because “it’s boxing: it just means you’re white.”

But to end our search for themes there is to miss the point of this movie. Racism is a tool to divide people and motivate them, but motivate them to do what? Divide and conquer is an old a strategy for getting people to do what you want, and it works. The people fork over their money in return for the thrill of competition. I cannot help thinking arbitrarily dividing the masses is a story that, though (or perhaps because) it is so common as to be essential to modern-day political power, is not clear enough to people. People do not realize how divided they are. They are unaware how these divisions sap their empathy, break up their community and make the prospect of solidarity in the face of power harder. They compete with each other in ways ranging from supposedly harmless sports to total war, fighting each other when they should be uniting to guillotine their kings and banish the aristocracy.

Power is always at risk. People are always trying to take power from you, and the more you have, the more you have to lose. Power is certainly a means to an end, as it means more of some of the luxuries of life (including people surrounding you willing to kill to protect you). But it becomes an end in itself. Powerful people constantly pursue and expand their influence. It is their 24-hour job. They often become paranoid, so even if their power is secure they could feel the need to lop off a few heads for good measure. They may find ways to imprison, kill or otherwise incapacitate more of their enemies. They may find ways to enlarge their armies, bring in more gold, build more castles or force more peasants into servitude. They might do all those things on the same day.

On that note, let’s go back to the Reverend Sultan. The man is the center of the boxing world. He lives in a palace with all the finest things. The Rev covers all his bases. His chosen title alludes to both Christianity and Islam and implies someone holy and trustworthy but also a man of power. All that in two words. The first thing he says to the media is “Glory be to God, all praises to Allah, God bless America”. He creates and cultivates this image so he can be all things to all people, much like a state that claims to represent everyone, uphold various rights, manage the economy, provide healthcare and education and keep people safe. He talks smack in front of the cameras but in person is steady, charming and intimidating, as the situation calls for. After he breaks his promise to the champ at the beginning, he, with the aid of his employees, puts on a big act to convince the champ of his contrition. Though the champ is never quite convinced, having dealt with the Rev’s bullshit before, this tactic works. It calms the champ down. The Rev proceeds to explain his plan to “create” a white contender for the heavyweight title. The champ is sold on the idea.

The Reverend Sultan came a long way

He is a skilled manipulator, painting a picture others want to believe in. Terry Conklin is skeptical when first informed of the Sultan’s plan. “I give my money to the homeless.” Terry puts his motivation in front of him for the Sultan to use against him.

“Good,” replies Sultan, “because if you take me up on my proposition and [fight the champ], I guarantee that you will personally wipe out homelessness in America.”

He tells Terry, “You can still kick [the champ’s] ass!…He’s scared shitless of you,” later confiding to Terry’s trainer, “When the bell rings, he’s dog meat.”

“This could be the fight of the century,” Sultan claims, but Terry sees through it:

“Yeah, right, until the next ‘fight of the century’.”

“You’re a shrewd man,” says Sultan, knowing complimenting most people’s intelligence puts them off their guard, “but if not for yourself Terry, do it for the tired, the poor, the teeming masses yearning to breathe free.”

Like Terry, Jamie Foxx’s character (whose name is never spoken) falls to the Reverend Sultan. Foxx plays the manager of the top contender. He attempts to act boldly on several occasions and always falters under the influence–sometimes no more than a look–from the Reverend Sultan.

The character that I think best illustrates how the Rev wields power is Mitchell Kane. In an exemplary performance by Jeff Goldblum, Mitchell Kane is an independent journalist making a documentary about the Reverend Sultan. He appears to us several times at the beginning looking into a camera and narrating his report. It begins, “You and I are going to take a very close look at this boxing promoter, this exploiter, embezzler, charlatan and demagogue.” Kane is the only one outside the Rev’s inner circle who knows how dangerous he is. Anywhere with a “free” press is likely to have some radical journalist speaking truth to power, but they, like Mitchell Kane, go mostly ignored.

Kane attempts to blackmail the Reverend Sultan. He forces Sultan to arrange a meeting. But the meeting is not in some coffee shop or even an office. It is in Sultan’s home, on his turf and his terms, in his sauna. He naturally has the advantage.

“So what do you want?” asks Sultan jovially.

“I want to destroy you,” answers Kane, as if he has been wanting to say those words for some time. He hands over photographs of the Sultan in compromising positions with prostitutes. Sultan laughs as he goes through them. “I like you. You have a goal and you have the balls to reach that goal. You have a blind, stupid belief in yourself.”

“Flattery is not going to work. I–”

“No, no, no, I want to offer you a job.”

After an apparently long discussion, Kane exits the sauna to find his documentary crew waiting for him. He addresses the camera. “Some have said this upcoming title fight is built around racism. But…” The Rev had co-opted him, appointing him his new PR guy with a nice, new salary. As is sometimes the case, the journalist (or the academic, or the social worker, or the more highly skilled union employee) likes what the powerful guy has to offer and sells out. Kane is soon throwing out nonsense like “In the cynical age that we live in, it’s rare indeed when someone or something becomes so transcendent as Terry and this fight have become.”

Julio Escobar gives the Rev more opportunities to show how he wields power. Cheech Marin plays Julio, president of the boxing association and thus the guy in charge of ranking professional boxers. Naturally, the Rev has Julio in his back pocket. The Rev has the money, so he is in charge. We see an example of this power imbalance in every scene featuring Julio. In Julio’s first scene, the Reverend Sultan finds out Julio’s assistant is smart, so he hugs her and says “You work for me now.” Julio objects:

“Hey, wait a minute, she works for me!”

“Uh, Julio, she works for me.”

“Okay, fine.”

Later, the Rev meets with Julio after finding Terry.

“I want the WBI to rank [Terry Conklin] in the top ten so I can give him a title shot,” says Sultan.

“You know Reverend, over the years I have bent and greased and stretched the rules for you…but even I cannot rank a fighter who has not had a professional fight!”

“Now, what’s it going to take for you to make this happen?” asks the Sultan suavely. “Money? Sex? Drugs? …Power?”

“Yeah, power.”

“You’re fired.”

“Okay! Money, sex and drugs.”

The Reverend knows you do not ask someone for power; you bargain for it, you demand it, you take it, but you do not get it by simply asking those people actively wielding their power over you.

“Don’t pull your shit out if you ain’t ready to use it.”

In the next scene, at a press conference, Sultan calls him “the honorable, estimable, incorruptible Mr Julio Escobar.” If you want to lie, lie big: turn the truth upside down. Smother the truth under articulate, high-quality bullshit.

Controlling one’s image requires controlling the message and only admitting being wrong if it benefits you strategically. Part of being in power therefore means somehow avoiding answering the tough questions. We have all heard politicians do it: attacking the interlocutor’s character; “That’s not the question. The real question is…”; etc. While leaving the room of the press conference, a white man accosts the Reverend Sultan and shouts “Julio Escobar is a whore on your payroll.” This man speaks the truth. He must be silenced, his comment forgotten.

“That is a libelous statement and a racist comment simply because Julio Escobar is of Latin descent.” Both barrels. The Rev continues the deflection as the man shifts uncomfortably. “Are you saying something about brown-skinned people? Do you hate Jews and Negroes as well?”

“I am a Jew.”

“Then you’re an Uncle Tom!”

The Rev turned another man from one who literally speaks truth to power into a “racist” in a brief exchange of words, discrediting him in the eyes of his peers and shutting up anyone else who might make the same accusation as he did.

Image is reality, and in the following scene the Reverend is complaining about initial media coverage after the announcement. He is addressing his PR guy, Saul, played by Jon Lovitz. “Why are they saying these things?”

“Because it’s the truth,” says Saul.

“The truth needs to be shaped and molded and framed, Saul.” Sultan is describing how PR (propaganda) works.

With threats, intimidation and co-opting for people who might present him with a challenge to controlling perceptions and images, the Reverend Sultan shows us both how to use power and why people with power are so hard to dislodge. Of course, the Great White Hype is about the world of boxing, not the coercive power of the state. The power of the state is incalculably more dangerous, and as a result, political-power relations are far more competitive and even more lucrative for the winners.

So what happens to the Rev? Does he lose his empire, or does he come out on top? Do you need to ask? He is the only one in the movie who truly understands power. He’s not going anywhere.

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