Jesse Owen’s Story Inspires Despite Average Filmmaking
DIRECTOR: STEPHEN HOPKINS/2016
Sometimes people choose the path of heroism, and sometimes the path of heroism chooses them. If Jesse Owens had been born a few years earlier or a few years later he would, I imagine, have still been a great Olympian. He would still have set records and won medals and would still be a prominent figure in African-American history. But Jesse Owens was 22 years old and at the peak of his athletic powers at a very specific moment in Olympic history. It was not just any games that Jesse Owens qualified for, but the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the biggest attempt at P.R. that the Third Reich ever attempted. German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was there to document it all: the grandeur of the purpose-built Olympic arena; the joyful, photogenic German people; their cheerful, fatherly Chancellor; and the athletic triumph of the Aryan ideal. That last bit didn’t go quite as planned, though, and that was due in large part to black competitors on the American team who took home 14 medals, 13 in track and field. Of those 13, four of them – all gold – went to Jesse Owens.
Director Stephen Hopkins is a veteran of television work, and there’s no getting away from the fact that Race often feels like an inspirational made-for-TV movie. From scene one, when Jesse’s mother (Michele Lonsdale-Smith) offers exposition on how frail he was as a child, to the final scene in which a white elevator boy eagerly asks for Jesse’s autograph, the feel-good tropes are laid on thick. But the true story at the center of the movie is so good, so valuable, that it transcends the movies’ shortcomings. It’s also to the film’s credit that some of the uncomfortable elements behind the story are at least suggested. American participation in the Berlin games was not a sure thing. Prominent Jewish, Catholic and black organizations advocated for a boycott of the games and the movie shows Owens receiving pressure from the NAACP to refrain from participating.
Many black athletes rightly pointed out that the United States had its own problems with race that it seemed unwilling to address: perhaps there was some hypocrisy in asking those competitors to take a stand against racism in Germany while they remained second-class citizens at home.
Jesse Owens (Stephen James, in a strong performance) ultimately decided to participate in the Olympic games, but there was political pressure in that direction, too. Race hints at the mixed motives of American Olympic Committee President, Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), but his sympathies were even less subtle than the film shows. Brundage didn’t simply advocate for athletes who deserved their shot at competing: he accused those who sought a boycott of being part of a Jewish-Communist conspiracy. The accusations silenced much of the dissent, although athletes still made individual decisions about participation. Ultimately, 18 black Olympians represented the United States in Berlin.
Race is roughly structured in two parts. In the first half of the film Jesse Owens is a track and field athlete at Ohio State (nicknamed the “Buckeye Bullet”), trying to support his daughter and girlfriend back home while also competing for a driven, hard drinking, not particularly sympathetic coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Snyder is not interested in racial politics, and seems oblivious to how they affect Jesse’s life: he only wants wins. And wins, he gets. At one meet Owens participates in four events in 45 minutes – winning them all; breaking the world record in three of them, and matching it in the fourth. And yes, that really happened.
Race wastes some time with a subplot about a worldly woman (Chantel Riley) – Jesse meets her at a nightclub and she makes no bones about her intentions – who temporarily lures Jesse away from the girl back home, Ruth (Shanice Banton). Did this really happen? I have no idea. I don’t care. The entire episode feels cliché and drags down the midsection of the movie. It’s much better when it moves on to Berlin and what Owens actually accomplished in the arena built to glorify Nazism. Hitler (Adrian Zwicker) is a barely seen enigma in Race, although his decision not to personally greet Owens as a gold medal winner gets some attention. Ironically, this is one of the places where the movie overplays the facts: in reality, Owens said that he and Hitler exchanged friendly waves and that he felt far less slighted by Hitler than by his own president, FDR, who never so much as sent a telegram congratulating Owens on his achievements at the games.
Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) is a prominent figure in Race, portrayed as basically politically neutral and only interested in making her film. The real villain of the movie is Josef Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat). The first time he appears, the score shifts to what I can only describe as horror movie musical cues, and Metschurat radiates malice every single second that he is onscreen. It’s actually distracting. I don’t think Hopkins needed to try so hard to convince us that this is a bad guy: it’s Josef Goebbels, after all.
Far better – and perhaps my favorite takeaway from Race – is the movie’s treatment of Carl “Luz” Long (David Kross), a German athlete who demonstrated his own kind of heroism at the 1936 games. After Jesse Owens fouled twice in the qualifying round of the broad jump Long gave Owen’s advice on where to start his jump. Owens went on to win the gold in the event (Long took silver) and Riefenstahl’s video of the event shows Long rushing to embrace Owens after his winning jump. It’s such a small thing, seeing two competitors celebrating together, but loaded with weight because of its particular time and place in history. Long was ordered by Hitler’s deputy to “never hug a Negro again”, but Owens talked about what that embrace meant to him for the rest of his life.
Jesse Owens came home from Berlin to the same systemic racism he’d left behind. Decades would pass before the Civil Rights movement began to affect change in America. As for the Third Reich, after showing its best face to the world during the games, it returned to its quest for global expansion and its slaughter of Jews, Gypsies, and other minority groups. So what difference did any of this make? A strong argument could be made that those who called for a boycott of the games were in the right, that depriving Germany of this propaganda tool would have been the better move. But that’s not what happened, and so Owens was there at that moment in history. He was an extraordinary athlete, and that uniquely qualified him to speak truth to power. At least briefly, Jesse Owens showed the world (and the Germans themselves) that the doctrine of racial superiority was a lie.