by Danny Stout
The life of Jesse Owens is an inspiring sports story. If lumped together with The Natural, Field of Dreams, or Hoosiers, it holds its own in the sports genre, (i.e., dedication, mental toughness, ultimate victory against the odds). Race, as reflected in the title’s double meaning, is a film that transcends sports, placing the story in the context of American racism and Nazi fascism. Unfortunately, it stretches facts about Owens’ life to the limit. Viewers must decide for themselves whether fudging here and there is ethically justified.
The sports enthusiast will broaden knowledge about one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time. How he trained, especially the techniques of sprinting he developed, is instructive. Owens was gifted, but knew he needed a mentor. That person was Ohio State University track coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) whose philosophy was purity of sport. Politics and bigotry were “just noise.” “Block it out,” he demanded. All that mattered was the track. At first, Owens bought in: “The ten seconds I’m running is pure freedom. No one can take it away.”
Owens is remembered for his four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games before Adolf Hitler and his minister of propaganda Josef Goebbels. The Olympics was Germany’s chance to showcase their rising world presence, and prove that Aryan athletes were superior to those of African descent. Owen’s four gold medals spoiled Hitler’s party. At least this is the enduring story that is perpetuated in Race. Hitler refuses to meet with Owens in the film, but eye witnesses saw Hitler shaking his hand. Also omitted is the story in The Baltimore Sun that Hitler sent Owens a signed photo of himself. Race is art, and the creators are free to take liberties. Morally speaking, does the magnitude of Hitler’s catastrophic impact on the world justify embellishing the story for the greater good? As the Third Reich grew in power, Owens became a symbol of defiance that millions rallied around.
Nevertheless, Owens was a complex individual surrounded by myths to keep the anti-Nazi story intact. Missing from Race is his criticism of FDR for not inviting him to the White House, stating that the U.S. president snubbed him, not Hitler. Owens also noted that blacks were able to stay in German hotels with whites, but such was not the case in the U.S.
Despite inaccuracies, Race has more historical context than the average sports film. Businessmen played by Jeremy Irons and William Hurt hold a substantive debate about boycotting the Berlin games. Details about Hitler’s filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) are given. Her technique of digging a hole to shoot up at the subject, thus deifying the Fuhrer, is objected to by Owens when she uses the same technique on him during the broad jump competition. “It’s lying, he reacts,” in Race. Riefensstahl defied Josef Goebbels’ admonition to just sell Germany, though. While Race depicts her as a mere propagandist, Olympia, her actual film depicts athletes of all races, and pioneers a number of sport film techniques including slow motion. It was shown throughout Europe and in Chicago. Capturing Owens’ long jump in a favorable light tends to suggest it was not merely a propaganda film as implied in Race.
Race comes at a time when bigotry remains at the top of the news agenda. It’s a relevant movie that begs the question of how far we’ve come since the 1930’s in terms of civil rights. Owen’s influence on the world stage during the Berlin Olympics may be inflated here, but the question of poetic license filmmakers use in conveying a moral message can only be judged by audience members.