Jesse Owens biopic reminds us of runner and historic 1936 Olympics
Starring Stephan James & Jason Sudeikis
Directed by Stephen Hopkins
No one had ever seen anyone run anything like Jesse Owens.
The sharecropper’s son from rural Alabama began burning up the track in junior high. By the early 1930s he was setting new championship records for Ohio State University, and in 1936 he wowed the world, where he brought home four gold medals—for track, relay race and long jump—from the Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany.
Race tells Owens’ tale, and its simple-sounding title packs a double meaning—about his fleet feet as well as the spotlight on him as a black man in a historically loaded moment in time, where he faced discrimination, racism and the pressure to represent his country and his “people.”
In the movie’s opening sequence, as Owens (Stephan James) prepares to leave home for college, his mother touches a scar on his bare chest, the leftover of a childhood tumor that almost claimed his young life. “God spared you for a reason,” she tells him.
That reason, the movie leads us to believe, was to stand up for what’s right, to walk (and run) humbly with your God-given gifts—and to stick it to the Nazis.
In 1936, the movie shows us, the United States was conflicted about whether to participate in the Summer Olympics at all. Germany had won the bid to host the events five years earlier, two years before Nazi Germany came to power. Adolph Hitler’s goal of a blue-eyed, blonde-haired master “Ayran race” was already making nasty international ripples. When a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee pays a diplomatic visit to Berlin to negotiate terms of America’s participation, he sees signs outside the gargantuan Berlin Sports Center reading “No Jews or Dogs.”
Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), expecting his highly trained athletes to dominate, wants to use the Olympics as the ultimate world stage to showcase German grandeur. He’s hired his country’s acclaimed filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice von Houten), to document everything from start to finish.
Director Stephen Hopkins takes a mostly straightforward, meat-and-potatoes approach, especially to Owens’ life in Ohio, where we meet his wife-to-be Ruth (Shanice Banton) and his coach, Larry Synder (Saturday Night Live TV vet Jason Sudeikis, very strong in a non-comedic role). The movie doesn’t really come alive until Owens arrives in Berlin, specifically when he first steps onto the futuristic field and is awestruck by a hundred thousand cheering spectators, a massive dirigible overhead blocking out the sun, Nazi banners, athletes giving “Sieg Heil!” salutes—and the sight of dur füher in his boxed seat.
Owens was an enormous part of the history of the 1936 Olympics, where his achievements delivered a big black slap to Germany’s smug Nazi face about their so-called racial “superiority.” A subplot about his friendship with their top athlete, Lutz Long, represents the bridges—instead of barriers—of the Olympics’ loftiest ideal.
After the Olympics, the great Owens came home a winner and a new record-setter, but we’re showed how his four gold medals didn’t exactly change the world—for him or anyone else. As the movie and the Black History Month timing of its release reminds us, there was—and remains still—a much longer race to be run.
—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine