This inspirational biopic covers the period in the life of Jesse Owens from when he enrolls in Ohio State University to his four gold medals in the 1936 German Olympics. He is discovered by a has-been Coach played by Jason Sudeikis, whose unique training methods help to develop Jesse’s incredible natural talents.
Much of the film revolves around race relations at the time. There is a fascinating contrast between the attitudes of many Americans in that period and the burgeoning racial policies of Nazi Germany. I was reminded of the famous correspondence wherein Hitler praises the eugenic ideals of American scientists.
I was also surprised by the vociferous opposition to Jesse in particular participating in the German Olympics. A representative of the NAACP personally insisted that he not go, because to do so would run counter to the progress they had already made in race relations. The team believed that participating in Germany’s Olympics would legitimize them, and therefore legitimize their policies as well. Similar complaints have been made in the modern era about our president meeting with Kim Jong Un.
In the end, if Jesse had refused to participate, both he and the event would have been a historical blip. Winning attracts attention, abstaining would have simply meant stepping aside from history as it unfolds. The American Olympic committee ruled for participating in a vote of 48 to 46, a bare majority.
Victory in the Olympics is a soft victory, diplomatic and political, influencing how countries think about themselves. WWII began three years after Jesse set his world records and won his gold medals, so one might question whether there was a point to the exercise at all. It is a footnote, an idea, that democracy conquered fascism in the field of sport. To the athletes and their families, those victories would have meant everything. To a wider America, it felt like a shared triumph. Whatever influence that may have had on the future is hard to guess.
RACE was an enjoyable historical film highlighting the personal journey of a man who raised the ceiling for black athletes. If the German Olympics didn’t change the course of history, Jesse’s accomplishments helped to change people’s perspectives about race at home, one more in a chain of heroes advancing a culture of acceptance and progress.
Categories: Arts & Entertainment