‘Race’ Focuses More On Racism Than Racing


The Jesse Owens biography Race focuses on the great athlete and the famous 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Berlin. Unfortunately, the emphasis on good and bad (some of which is manufactured just for the film, although some of the more astounding elements are true) makes Owens essentially a cardboard cutout in his biography. That is a shame, since the story itself is a wonderful tale about overcoming racism.

Owens (Stephan James) begins as a student at Ohio State University in 1933, where track and field coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) quickly spots his potential and grooms him for a possible appearance at the upcoming Olympics. At that time, there was enormous pressure within the United States to boycott the Olympics because of Hitler’s rampant racism. Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, visits Germany, gets friendly with Hitler’s right-hand man Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) and comes back reporting that there is no reason to skip the Olympics.

The movie skips over, to some degree, Brundage’s keeping many American Jewish athletes from competing… after all, this is a movie about racism, not anti-Semitism. Brundage convinces Amateur Athletic Union President Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) that there would be no harm in going.

At any rate, Snyder gets snubbed and almost has to sneak into the whole Olympics thing. Owens competes and wins four gold medals, which really upsets Hitler and his racial purity buddies. There is a nice scene between Owens and German Olympian Luz Long (David Kross), which actually happened, where Long gives the American some technical advice that keeps him from fouling out of the long jump, which he wins. On the other hand, the movie essentially ignores the fact that a whole group of black athletes competed at those games, and many of them also won medals.

James, unfortunately, was flat in terms of acting. Things were going on around him, and he seemed simply to be there, being acted upon instead of being the prime mover. The only exceptions were the scenes between him and Snyder, where we could see the warmth of their relationship. There the film worked. But it is also troubling that, as in many similar movies, it seems that in Race, black men cannot move up without a white mentor. Granted, at that time there was a lot of truth to that, but the movie seemed far more involved in the machinations of the whites.

The strongest characterization, that of Brundage, was too strong. Irons is a great actor, but he turned the man into a combination of villain and village idiot. Brundage had many flaws, but here he is presented as going overboard in his willingness to ignore what Hitler was doing. There is no doubt that he really was an anti-Semite. (As head of the International Olympic Committee in 1972, he blocked attempts to hold a memorial for the Israeli athletes murdered in Munich.) But there should have been more subtlety in the portrayal.

The intent of the movie seems focused more on racism both in the U.S. and Nazi Germany than on anything Owens did. The movie winds up focusing far more on racism than on racing. Owens is presented almost as a nonplayer. He is there only to run, jump, win and stand out as a rebuke to the believers in racial purity.

In real life, however, Owens was notoriously apolitical, refusing to get into political arguments or campaigning even when many people put pressure on him. But this film forgot the main topic and, as a result, its focus is scattered.

There is a small card shown at the end of the film noting that Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not invite Owens to the White House. True, perhaps, but those type of invitations only became common in more recent years.

Hating racism is a good thing, and making movies about it is fine. But they should be good movies, ones focusing on character. If the producers wanted to focus on the racism around those Olympics, a good documentary would have cost less money and been more to the point. The film is OK, but not a really fine one.