Jesse Owens (Stephan James) is famous for winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics that took place in Berlin. The track and field events in which he competed included the 100 meter dash, the 200 meter dash, the long jump, and the 4×100 meter relay race.
What makes Owens’ feat so remarkable is that he had to overcome not only racism at home but the prejudice that he encountered in Germany’s Nazi notions about Aryan whites being a master race. So, not only did he have to deal with discrimination in the States but the prejudices of Adolf Hitler (Adrian Zwicker) and the Nazis.
Directed by Stephen Hopkins (Lost in Space), Race is a biopic that has much more to offer than an account of Jesse’s historic achievements. In addition to recreating the tension surrounding each of the contests, the picture devotes considerable time to developing the protagonist’s personality.
As the film unfolds, we learn about Jesse’s roots in Cleveland, and that he was the first of his family’s ten children to attend college. When he left for Ohio State, he already had a baby (Yvanna-Rose Leblanc) with Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton), the childhood sweetheart he would eventually wed and remain with until his death in 1980.
At the university, Jesse forged a close relationship with his track coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), who also served as a surrogate father. And when Snyder’s competence was being undermined by bigoted officials on the U.S. Olympic Committee, he decided to pay his own way in order to accompany his promising protege to the games in Berlin.
In Germany, Jesse was shaken to be greeted with the N-word. He was equally shocked to see signs in stores declaring “No Jews or dogs allowed.” Nevertheless, he managed to block out the madness all around him and concentrated on performing in the Olympic stadium to the best of his ability.
When Jesse, instead of the Aryan athletes, won medals, Hitler was so infuriated that he refused to shake Jesse’s hand, even though that was the proper protocol for gold medal-winners. Despite pressure from the Führer and Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) to follow suit, German long jumper Carl “Luz” Long (David Cross) went out of his way to embrace the champion who had been ostracized on account of his skin color. The two remained friends although Carl perished while fighting on the front lines in World War II.
Regrettably, Jesse’s reception back home wasn’t much better. Unfortunately, the White House never publicly acknowledged his remarkable achievements. The movie is an inspiring and long overdue tribute to a great patriot and African American icon.
Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, mature themes, and ethnic slurs. In English and German with subtitles. Running time: 134 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.