Movie review: Race

Jesse Owens, the ordinary man from Depression-era Cleveland who became the star of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and the star of the 2016 movie Race, may have known: Once the gun goes off, it doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white, Jewish or Christian, American or German; all that matters at the moment is how fast or slow you are.

Unfortunately, this biopic without much of a biography, this timid exposé of corruption among Olympics officials, this Earth-shattering juxtaposition of Adolf Hitler’s view of Aryan supremacy and the fastest human on the planet, a black man living in a racist America—this movie spends so little time on each episode of this historic achievement that it utterly fails to provide any deep understanding, as a historical drama, of either Owens’s great races or the racism that marks the double-entendre in the title.

James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens, is played capably by Stephan James, who also starred in Selma. He just had no good material to work with, despite an abundance of material from the historical record that should have provided the film’s writers and director ample opportunity. A story this significant, whether we’re talking about the Olympics track-and-field races or the discrimination in 1930s America and in Nazi Germany of people of nonwhite races, deserved something more substantial than anecdotal scenes.

Take a scene in Owens’s family kitchen, when a representative of the NAACP tells him how powerful it would be if he refused to attend the Olympics, in solidarity with oppressed Germans. Here was this NAACP rep making Owens and his athletic accomplishments nothing more than a pawn, to be used to send a political message with which Owens may or may not have agreed, and we get no backstory. All we see is the request from the NAACP, which Owens must have talked about, though none of those deep conversations made the final cut.

Or, we could talk about the one time Owens was unfaithful to his fiancée, Ruth (Shanice Banton). We see him dancing with some groupie, and the next thing we know, Ruth is suing him for breach of promise. He does the honorable thing and begs Ruth to marry him, which, as we all know, she does. The storytelling, however, is lacking, and that makes Owens more of a cardboard cutout than the man who made the Fuhrer eat his words and more of a runner than a four-time Olympic Gold Medalist.

Or, toward the end of the movie, the pleasant, kind, and hardworking young man, Owens, and his coach from Ohio State, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), attend some dinner held in Owens’s honor. There is absolutely no introduction as to what this dinner is all about; we simply see Owens, his wife, Snyder, who is played like one of the most erudite and enlightened track coaches on the planet, and his wife walking up to a redcoat doorman. Owens and his wife, “your friends” as they’re called by the doorman, must use the service elevator.

Yes, the doorman knows who Owens is and knows the dinner is being given in his honor. But being black, he and his wife need to use the service entrance. That’s all we know about this missed opportunity for storytelling. It was a punch line without the set-up.

Snyder isn’t the only one whose character is slightly altered for the film. Specifically, Owens is also a pawn to be used in a struggle between Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), president of the Amateur Athletic Union, who wanted the US to boycott the games in Berlin, and Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), a builder of skyscrapers who wanted the US to participate and may have, in fact, been a Nazi sympathizer. The movie sanitizes Brundage substantially, turning him into a stand-up sportsman fighting for the good of athletics and America’s need for champions, rather than the racist he probably was.

And filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl is portrayed in the movie as a simple filmmaker who wants to get the good shot every chance she has. She was that, indeed, but in real life, her heart was much more into Nazism than the film allows. A good director would have known that. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum, for example, lists her as an award-winning filmmaker who brilliantly shot lots of propaganda in support of the Nazis.

It was for [the movie depicted in this film] Olympia that Riefenstahl pioneered numerous cinematographic techniques, such as filming footage with cameras mounted on rails (commonly known today as tracking shots). Olympia’s forceful blend of aesthetics, sports, and propaganda again won Riefenstahl accolades and awards, including Best Foreign Film honors at the Venice Film Festival and a special award from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for depicting the joy of sport.

By her own account, the advent of World War II and the rapid escalation of violence under the Nazi regime had an unfavorable effect on both Riefenstahl and her career. Early in the Polish campaign, an incident seemed to have shaken Riefenstahl’s confidence in the movement she had glorified in cinematic images. While accompanying German troops near Konskie, the filmmaker witnessed the execution of Polish civilians shot in retaliation for a partisan attack on German troops. Riefenstahl apparently left her filming that day in order to make a personal appeal to Hitler against such arbitrary violence. The incident may have planted a seed of doubt in Riefenstahl’s mind, but it did not prevent her from filming Hitler’s triumphal parade into Warsaw just weeks later.

The one character who is treated relatively close to reality is German track star Carl “Luz” Long (David Kross), who challenges Owens in the broad jump. They become friends and Long shares with Owens, in the movie’s most touching moment, his belief that the Nazis had gone crazy. Maybe they didn’t share a beer or a Coke, but historical records suggest the conversation and the ensuing friendship of these two great athletes, across national lines, were real.

Over all, the movie is entertaining and has some good lines about ignoring all the political garbage, all the hatred, all the naysayers, whether you’re running in a race or dealing with racist ideas expressed by your fellow Americans. I found it a little educational, just not very good for doing research. And that is unfortunate.

On wide release in the US, February 19, 2016, Race is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language. There are about two dozen swear words, and Hitler is a tyrant who had millions of people put to their deaths. The film is directed by Stephen Hopkins, with a screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse.

We review movies in order to support Illinois Learning Standards in the fine arts, especially 26.A.4b (Understand how the primary tools, support tools and creative processes—researching, auditioning, designing, directing, rehearsing, refining, presenting—interact and shape drama, theater and film production), 26.A.5 (Analyze and evaluate how the choice of media, tools, technologies and processes support and influence the communication of ideas), and 27.B.5 (Analyze how the arts shape and reflect ideas, issues or themes in a particular culture or historical period), among others.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.