‘Race’ muddles Jesse Owens’ complex, heroic narrative

‘Race’ muddles Jesse Owens’ complex, heroic narrative

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Stephen Hopkins' new film, "Race," undercuts its premise by packaging Jesse Owens’ exploits as a rather basic sports story. But Owens' real, heroic story is so much more than that.

Jesse Owens on the victors' podium after winning the long jump at the 1936 Olympics. L-R, Naoto Tajima, Owens, Luz Long. (Public domain image via Wikipedia entry on Jesse Owens)

WASHINGTON, March 19, 2016 – Jesse Owens is one of the most important athletes in American history. He’s on the short list as one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. Even more interesting, Owens arrived on the scene at a time when his talents challenged the social and political atmosphere in both America and across the world.

Jesse Owens’ inspiring story, leading up to his record-breaking four gold medals at Hitler’s controversial 1936 Berlin Olympic games, is the subject of “Race,” the new Hollywood sports and human interest biopic directed by Stephen Hopkins. The film features Stephan James in the title role of Jesse Owens and also features co-stars William Hurt, Jeremy Irons, Jason Sudeikis and Carice van Houten.

It’s good to see Hollywood making a feature film of this All-American story whose social and political time would seem to have come again. Unfortunately, Owens’ hard work and epic achievements are a story that “Race” mishandles.

The film’s biggest problem is its narrative construction and the way it affects the character of Jesse Owens (Stephen James). “Race” undercuts its very premise by packaging Owens’ exploits as a rather basic sports story—the kind audiences have seen many times before. The problem is, Owens’ story is so much more than that.

Screen grab of Focus Features' PR splash page for their new film, "Race," starring Stephen James as Jesse Owens. (Via http://www.focusfeatures.com/race)
Screen grab of Focus Features’ PR splash page for their new film, “Race,” starring Stephen James as Jesse Owens. (Via http://www.focusfeatures.com/race)

Jesse Owens vs. America’s racial prejudice

Owens’ early years were a struggle. Given the racial politics of his times, he had to battle just to get into college by virtue of being a black athlete and being marginalized because of that. But one of the problems the film encounters is its strong focus on Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), Owens’ Ohio State University track coach. By focusing so intently on Snyder early on, “Race” often obscures other more important themes.

True, the film does amply portray the overt racism Jesse Owens faced while at Ohio State, a situation he endured steadfastly, being careful to respect the “good” people who helped him. Throughout much of its first half, however, the film does what Hollywood films usually do with a story like this, hyping up the bad and highlighting the nasty individuals hurling racial epithets at the lead character while also being careful to balance things by pointing out those “good people.”

While this approach is geared to attract attention by highlighting overt racial attacks, as applied here, it does a much worse job showing the more subtle aspects of racism, such as the relatively insidious isolation he faced on campus even as a standout athlete; being forced to live off campus; not receiving a full scholarship; and being cut off from his teammates in various ways that didn’t involve track meets. The perseverance Owens display in his pursuit of athletic greatness even as the establishment strove to reject him was and is hugely significant. It was that perseverance that became an indelible part of Owens’ character.

Another problem: This movie goes to great lengths to portray Owens as a relatively humble athlete, someone who took his accomplishments in stride and always expressed thankfulness for his opportunities and success. This is certainly an endearing sentiment. But it’s also largely a lie. Owens was quite aware of how good he was, and he was not shy about expressing it.

For Jesse Owens, track was a way for him to get back at the injustices he faced in his life, and in some ways, he made those who had caused him to suffer pay dearly for those precious few seconds he spent on the track. To portray him as being shy and self-effacing about his gifts slights Owens as an athlete.

Avery Brundage, Goebbels, Riefenstahl clog the plot

In another misstep, the film also spends a good amount of time – perhaps too much – with Avery Brundage (played by Jeremy Irons), his attempts to secure the United States’ place in the ’36 Olympics, and his politicking with the U.S. Olympic Committee and Nazi Germany. Yet oddly, the film’s main narrative pivots away from this subplot every time it looks like Brundage is poised to become a more prominent character.

Perhaps that’s because “Race,” above all, wants to make it abundantly clear that Nazi Germany is the overarching villain in this story. After all, Nazis are easy and identifiable villains in any Hollywood film, and deploying an historically despicable monster like Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metchurat) to serve as ringmaster at the center of the political argument is a smart choice.

Goebbels ruled the Nazi regime’s media wing and was especially effective pushing forward his party’s notorious racial and ethnic propaganda. For Goebbels, and indeed Hitler himself, the 1936 Olympic games were to be the lynchpin, the crowning argument for the Nazi’s Aryan race agenda. The fact that Jesse Owens—an man of “inferior race” according to the Nazis—proved by any measure to be the superior athlete in these games, blew that notion right out of the water.

“Race” demonstrates its focus on Owens’ intended role in this ideology as well as the role of propaganda in general – at least in the second half of the film – by introducing yet another key character, German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten). She was a vitally important figure in the German propaganda machine, having already filmed the iconic Hitler propaganda biopic “Triumph of the Will” before the 1936 Olympics.

Ironically, Riefenstahl was vitally important to Jesse Owens’ transformation into a cultural icon. Before the 1936 Olympics, most people who followed athletics were at least dimly aware of what Jesse Owens had accomplished at home and abroad. (Holding multiple world records will do that.) But most weren’t aware of Owens’ brilliance as an all-around athlete.

It seems that Riefenstahl was indeed aware of Owens’ unique achievements. One of the great things “Race” does is capture, perhaps for the first time, the absolute fixation Riefenstahl had on Owens, and how determined she was to capture his magnificence on film, regardless of how that might complicate Goebbels’ “master race” narrative.

In many respects, the filmmakers’ attention to this detail is the intellectual high point of their film. Viewing Owens’ athletic stature and dominance as seen through Riefenstahl’s cinematic eye underscores the fact that she was a genius in moving pictures just as much as Owens was an athletic genius.

Juxtaposing their relative importance in our view of the 1936 Berlin games is an interesting narrative choice, though the film glosses over and in some respects minimizes her real-life role in service to Nazi Germany.

Sadly, that overly simplistic take extends throughout this film, notably in the filmmakers’ attempts to outline differences between American racism and the persecution Jewish people faced in Germany during Hitler’s reign. Their efforts help neither perspective in the process.

The Nazis vs. 1930s America: Moral equivalence?

The main problem, as it often is in today’s films, is that the narrative line can’t quite escape the twin political urges to moralize and to conflate entirely different issues by flirting with moral equivalency. Ironically, though, by having Jesse Owens fully understand and comprehend what was happening in Germany at the time in the film has the effect of erasing the actual troubles experienced by blacks in the U.S.

“Race” indulges in a moral volleyball match going back and forth over which flavor of national racism was/is worse, using Owens’ own experiences as touchstone. That’s a problem, because it doesn’t represent the historical Owens’ personal perception and experience. Owens actually had a fairly good opinion of his hosts during his brief stay in Germany, something that clearly contrasted to his treatment once he returned to 1930s America.

“Race” only briefly acknowledges at the end of the film that Owens was actually snubbed by President Franklin Roosevelt even after the entire world had learned Owens was most successful Olympic athlete in modern history. Roosevelt refused to meet Owens for reasons that seem dubious at best.

The film alludes to this in text imposed over an image of Owens and his wife Ruth Solomon-Owens (Shanice Banton) kissing as they are forced to take a servants’ elevator to an event primarily held to honor Owens.

Another omission: “Race” doesn’t even mention how Avery Brundage – who this film treats rather leniently despite his reputation as an elitist, classist, and racist – decided to strip Owens of his amateur status because the champion built on his Olympic success to support his family.

Brundage actually promoted “amateur” rules that effectively favored those with means against those who were dire financial positions and needed to gain an income from their athletic exploits. This very real manifestation of class privilege influenced the later Owens considerably.

An interesting but flawed biopic trapped by Hollywood sports clichés

All these issues are ultimately the problem with “Race” as a biographical movie. The film goes to such great pains to make Jesse Owens the kind of athlete that Hollywood feels is “authentic” that they gloss over the obstacles the real-life Owens actually faced and conquered, a rare skill that made him such a complex and notable individual.

“Race” does capture the athletic magnetism that made Owens special. But it undersells the heroic human being that made his role in the 1936 Olympics such an important story to tell. For that reason, “Race” is in many ways just another manifestation of the standard template for the only way Hollywood insists on engaging the still critical issues of oppression and racism.

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