Sarris’s italicized Great White Hope refers to the eponymous 1970 film, adapted from a successful stage play based on Johnson’s life (watch the trailer here). Outwardly, the film seems to criticize the ideology represented in its title, making it blatantly clear that the white establishment had railroaded Johnson’s eventual defeat in the ring. Yet, The Great White Hope does not entirely escape the noble savage paradigm, turning Johnson into a misunderstood hero. As Pauline Kael wrote for The New Yorker, the movie “is so afraid of letting its hero antagonize the audience that instead of having a blonde tucked under each arm, [Johnson] is allowed only one dowdy brunette.”
Six years later, in the immediate post-Civil Rights period and coinciding with the nation’s Bicentennial, a much clearer version of the great white hope returned to the big screen. Rocky topped the box office by refashioning the American dream in a white man’s rags-to-riches story. While Rocky pursues his goal with honesty and hard work, the profit-seeking Apollo Creed stands for the evils of corporatism and a misguided sense of black empowerment. Apollo conceives of the fight as a Bicentennial media spectacle and stages his memorable entry into the ring as a parody of American history. Rocky, however, manages both to go the distance and to teach his black brother a lesson in good sportsmanship, redeeming him of his post-materialist excesses.
Rocky’s nostalgic resurrection of the American dream stands in sharp contrast to the actual Bicentennial celebrations. In the middle of an economic crisis, before the dust of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal had settled, the nation’s anniversary offered as much a chance for celebrating America as for de-mythologizing it. The New York Times described the celebrations as a mixture of “self-doubt, hope and pride,” noting “an undercurrent of uncertainty about what succeeding Fourths of July hold for future generations of Americans.” If we consider how bluntly Rocky presents its racial binaries and how overtly it links them to the Bicentennial, it is indeed hard to disagree with the description of the film as a romanticized great white hope.
With this background in mind, my paper for the conference will attempt to reconsider Rocky’s Bicentennial myth, not so much to refute the prevailing interpretation, but to problematize its obviousness and to explore some the contextual discourses that underpin it. I will consider such questions as the differences between white backlash and white victimization in the mid-70s, the relevance of Stallone’s star persona (it can be difficult to imagine today that he was once hailed as the new Marlon Brando), and the subtle differences between Apollo Creed and Muhammad Ali (watch here a comic exchange between Ali and Stallone at the 1977 Academy Awards, with the former claiming to be the real Apollo Creed).
For some of the answers I will be looking at the 70s ethnic revival movement. Sarris alludes to the significance of Rocky’s Italian American ethnicity, describing the film’s version of the American dream as “Horatio Algerino style.” I want to propose the argument that the film invests in the cultural cachet of white ethnicity, not only to bring the American dream up to date, but also to render its racial politics more palatable. As an Italian American, Rocky stands for what Jacobson calls a whiteness of a different color, which allows him to believably combine a 70s sense of white victimization with an old-fashioned model of American manhood.
Stelios Christodoulou, University of Kent.