Rating: 3 stars out of 5.
Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Cast: Stephan James as Jesse Owens, Jason Sudeikis as Larry Snyder, Shanice Banton as Ruth Solomon-Owens, Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage, William Hurt as Jeremiah Mahoney, Carice van Houten as Leni Riefenstahl, Amanda Crew as Peggy, Jeremy Ferdman as Marty Glickman, Barnaby Metschurat as Joseph Goebbels, David Kross as Carl “Luz” Long, Glynn Turman as Harry Davis, Jonathan Aris as Arthur Lill, Shamier Anderson as Eulace Peacock, Tony Curran as Lawson Robertson, Nicholas Woodeson as Fred Rubien, Giacomo Gianniotti as Sam Stoller, Eli Goree as Dave Albritton, Anthony Sherwood as Rev. Ernest Hall, Jon McLaren as Trent, Tim McInnerny as General Charles, Vlasta Vrána as St. John, Adrian Zwicker as Adolf Hitler.
Race is a movie about Olympic races and racism. Set in the 1930s when segregation existed in the United States, it recounts Jesse Owens’ journey towards becoming arguably the greatest athlete of the 20th century.
The biopic begins with young Jesse being accepted to Ohio State University. Coach Larry Snyder’s goal is to ensure his qualification to the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Snyder initially comes across as someone who sees Jesse as an ends to relive his own shattered dreams of Olympic glory. His character warms up helping Jesse with a stipend to send home to his girlfriend Ruth and baby daughter. Snyder advises Jesse when he suffers heartbreak at his dilemma about whether he should continue with his new love interest—city girl Peggy— or try and win back his childhood sweetheart, Ruth.
Snyder is the unwitting witness to the continuation of the cleansing policy against Jews instituted by the German dictator when he visits Berlin downtown to pick up shoes made by Adi Dasler, the founder of Adidas. Owens thus becomes the first African-American endorser for a shoe company.
Training at the Ohio State University, Jesse learns to stay crouched and bent into an explosive start to reduce wind resistance. This is enforced by the use of hurdles that he would dash into if he were upright too soon into his stride. Jesse and his fellow runners are taught how smaller strides don’t necessarily mean that they’re moving slow as long as their leg turnover is substantially higher than normal.
Jesse (actually pronounced Jay Cee) is no paragon of virtue, although a speed demon on the track. He is a young man who succumbs to temptation and bright lights when away from his girlfriend Ruth. He realizes his folly and asks Ruth to marry him which she does. Ruth, however, is no shrinking violet, sending her beau a breach of promise notice on learning of his dalliance with Peggy.
Avery Brundage makes the case for American athletes participating at the Berlin Games. His proposition is passed by a narrow margin by the US Olympic Committee. The reigning president of the Amateur Athletic Union, Jeremiah T Mahoney, resigns in protest. His conscience wouldn’t allow him to support American participation in the Games.
Jesse is forced to make a choice. Should he run at the Berlin Games and be perceived as supporting Hitler’s policies towards Jews and Negroes or stay home and forgo his chance for glory?
There follows a telling scene where Jesse has a showdown with Snyder about the issue. Snyder snaps at Jesse saying that he doesn’t care what the African – Americans have to say about his participation in the Games; both Jesse and he have worked too hard to just throw it away. Jesse responds that he doesn’t have to because African-Americans aren’t his people.
Jesse finally decides to take part; his teammate Eulace Peacock who suffers a hamstring pull before the Games convinces him that participating is the best way to prove that Hitler is wrong— no one would remember him as the athlete who walked away. He’d certainly be recalled as the Olympian who won gold at Hitler’s games.
On arriving in Berlin, Germany, Jesse and his African-American teammates are surprised that the athletes’ mess and rooms at the Games are not segregated.
Owens—wearing a jersey numbered 733—wins the 100 metres quite easily. He is, however, snubbed by Adolf Hitler who leaves the stadium without shaking his hand. Olympic Committee officials had insisted that the Fuhrer personally greet every victor. The dictator chooses instead to wish German athletes only.
(Though not depicted in the biopic, Owens said at the time:
“Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. It happened he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100 meters. But before he left I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me and I waved back. I think it was bad taste to criticize the ‘man of the hour’ in another country.”
Owens would later say:
“Some people say Hitler snubbed me. But I tell you, Hitler did not snub me. I am not knocking the President. Remember, I am not a politician, but remember that the President did not send me a message of congratulations because people said, he was too busy.”
“Hitler didn’t snub me – it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”
Luz Long, Jesse’s rival in the broad jump, is an epitome of sportsmanship. He helps Jesse qualify by placing a towel before the takeoff line. His portrayal reminds us that not all Germans acquiesced to Hitler’s policy against the Jews and his notions of Aryan supremacy. Luz discloses to Owens—post the broad jump event—that he refused the company of a young woman sent to his room to entertain him during the games suspecting that her only wish was to impregnate herself with a specimen of Teutonic manhood. Luz lost his life during the Second World War. (Being sent to the warfront was usually a punishment posting for Germans opposed to the Nazi regime.)
Jesse wins the broad jump final quite handily. He follows suit in the 200 metres.
It’s not entirely a victory for American ideals against Nazi ideology . Jesse’s Jewish teammates, Marty Glickman and Sam Stollerare, are cut from the 4*100 relay, a concession made to Goebbel on behalf of the Fuhrer.
Owens returns home a triumphant American hero only to take the service elevator to his own felicitation dinner.
An interesting sidelight in the movie is the depiction of Leni Riefenstahl, the German film director, producer, screenwriter, editor, photographer, actress, dancer, and propagandist for the Nazis. Riefenstahl is invited by Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, to film the Games. Her film Olympia was highly successful and included shots of all competitors. Reifenstahl—in the movie—ignores Goebbels to film the famous montage of Owens.
Carl Lewis would go on to emulate Owens at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics , a games hit by a retaliatory boycott by the Soviets for the 1980 shunning by the Americans.
Owens—-unsuccessfully— tried to convince then President Jimmy Carter against it because he felt that the Olympic ideal was a time-out from war and above politics.
Owens remained married to Ruth until his death in 1980 of lung cancer. He was a chain smoker for 35 years.