Why “Race” Matters Now More Than Ever

Simone Manuels’ gold medals made a statement in Rio. In 1936, there was Jesse Owens in Berlin.

“Race” starring Stephan James as Jesse Owens. Image via Focus Features

Eighty years ago, Jesse Owens won four track gold medals at the Olympics in Berlin—swimmer Simone Manuel became the first African American swimmer to win a gold medal, in Rio. That accomplishment, so significant, shows just how momentous Owens’ success was at the 1936 Games, given the environment of Germany leading up to World War II.

I took a break from watching the events in Rio to watch Race, the biopic about Owens, which was released earlier this year. I knew Owens was incredibly fast and that his skill so enraged Adolf Hitler, but not much more than that.

Image via Flickr

The film—directed by Stephen Hopkins and made with the cooperation of Owens’ daughters and his foundation—opens with Owens (played by Stephan James) leaving home to attend Ohio State University. OSU was his choice because he had heard good things about Buckeyes track coach Larry Snyder (played by Jason Sudeikis of SNL fame). Snyder, once an Olympic hopeful himself, essentially grooms Owens for the Olympics, stressing that while records can be broken: “A gold medal is yours for life.”

To get to that point, though, Owens must endure a college atmosphere about as brutal to African Americans as you would expect. Owens could be in the locker room only until the arrival of the white football players, who would not shower with him there. On the field, boos from fans greeted Owens during competitions.

But he overcame all that, establishing records in NCAA races as he set his sights on the Berlin Games. Because this is a movie, where we are paying to be entertained, we also learn of a brief affair that almost derails the long-term relationship with the mother of his child. But Owens stays focused on his goal, with Snyder’s mentoring and, ultimately, friendship.

The movie picks up steam in its portrayal of the pre-Olympic controversy over whether the USA should participate in the Berlin Games, given the racist policies of the Nazi regime.

Avery Brundage (played by Jeremy Irons) is the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee who lobbies hard against a boycott, despite the vocal calls for it from the head of the Amateur Athletic Union, Jeremiah Mahoney (played by William Hurt). Brundage refuses to acknowledge the Nazi anti-Semitism, even when he goes to Germany and sees propaganda signs — as well as Jews being carted away in trucks. He insists that the rumors about Hitler’s frightening ethnic policies are just that, rumors.

There’s pressure on Owens, as well; the NAACP says that he shouldn’t go to Germany because Hitler’s policies are exactly what African Americans have been fighting against in their own country.

Owens does go to the Games, with Snyder paying his own way because he’s not an officially sanctioned Olympic coach. The scenes in Berlin are particularly effective, perhaps because we know what would soon happen in Germany under Hitler, but also because of the last-minute change in the relay race, when two Jewish athletes (Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller) are pulled from the event. Owens agrees to run the relay, only after the two have given him their blessings. (While the film seems to blame Brundage for the decision to pull the runners, it is unclear whether the two were actually withdrawn because Hitler would not have wanted any Jews winning medals.)

The film ends with Owens’ triumphant return home, although there is one poignant scene in which he and his wife have to use a rear entrance to attend a dinner in his honor.

While Owens did spend much of his post-Olympic years as a motivational speaker, he was never financially secure, in the ways that today’s athletes are.

Would I recommend Race? Yes, it held my attention and I learned more about Jesse Owens and the Olympics than I expected. Are some scenes a little saccharine? A few … but much less than in other sports movies, where the music and slow-motion photography almost turn them into commercials.

If you still have the fever once the Rio Olympics are over, there are many other movies with an Olympic backdrop that you might want to check out:

· Chariots of Fire: Two British runners, one Jewish and one Christian, whose faiths impact their relationship and their races during the 1924 Olympics. Warning: You’ll have that Academy Award-winning Vangelis instrumental theme stuck in your head for weeks. (1981)

· Munich: Directed by Steven Spielberg, this frightening recreation of one of the most tragic Olympics is about the 1972 PLO attack that left 11 Israeli athletes dead, along with the subsequent efforts of the Israel Secret Service to find and kill the terrorists. (2005)

And like the Olympics themselves, there are more upbeat and lighthearted films about the Games:

· Cool Runnings: Try not to laugh as these Jamaicans who have never seen snow follow their dream to compete on the Olympic bobsled team and stars John Candy. (1999)

· Eddie the Eagle: Hugh Jackman stars as the coach of the unlikely Olympian Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton), who competed for England as a ski jumper in the 1988 Winter Olympics. (2016)

Simone Manuel. First stop: Rio. Next stop: Hollywood? Image via Us Weekly

Try to imagine who, of the many medal winners from the Rio Games, could be the subject of a film over the next few years: Ledecky. Phelps. Bolt. Simone Biles. And certainly Simone Manuel. Hollywood loves a good sports movie, especially with historic implications. We’ve had many so far in Rio.

Did we miss your favorite Olympic-themed movie? Tweet us and let us know.

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