“Hitler didn’t snub me; it was our president who snubbed me.” (Jesse Owens, quoted in his biography, Triumph.)
The 1936 Olympic Games were a significant event, more mired in politics than most Olympics before or since. The decision to hold the games in Berlin, under the newly established Nazi government, was a controversial decision leading to threats of boycott and requiring international diplomacy to allow it to take place. Even in such a significant Olympic year, the performance of American athlete J. C. ‘Jesse’ Owens still stands out.
Race, whose title provides a simple but very apt double meaning, tells Owens’ story, from both a personal and a political perspective. It begins with Owens (Stephan James), the child of a working-class family, leaving his parents’ home in Cleveland, Ohio to attend university – the first in his family to do so. He leaves behind his fiancée, Ruth, whom he later marries, and their infant daughter, hoping to better himself for both their sakes.
The film quietly introduces the racial climate of 1930s America: public transport is segregated, as are many public places, and Owens encounters open hostility and contempt from white students. The disturbing practice of black adults lowering their eyes respectfully when speaking with a white person is noted in passing. Owens finds a respite from all this in his running coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikas), who is abrasive but uninterested in race, only in athletic talent.
Snyder is amazed at Owens’ speed and strength, and hopes to enter Owens in the upcoming Olympics. However, there is still hot debate over whether the U.S. should participate in the event; they suspect Germany may not keep its promise of permitting athletes of all races to compete. In addition, some members of the Olympic Committee felt that to join the games implied acceptance of the German government and its policies. An envoy, Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), is sent to Germany to investigate. Brundage finds an extensive and impressive site being prepared, but also observes anti-Jewish posters and blatant police harassment in the streets. He negotiates with propaganda minister Goebbels for a better public image of Berlin during the games, and their promise to allow all U.S. competitors. To avoid compromising the Olympics, which the German government sees as invaluable propaganda for their success, they hide all evidence of government mistreatment or anti-Semitic feeling, and provide city-wide ‘window dressing’ which presents happy shopkeepers and courteous police officers to the eyes of foreign visitors. Combined with some discreet bribery, this is enough to convince Brundage to recommend against a boycott.
Back at the Ohio State University, Owens continues to train, with the help of his gruff but attentive coach, who helps him with racist students and financial needs along with improving his running technique. Owens breaks multiple records within the U.S. for footraces and the broad-jump. Gradually, Owens is able to form an open, equal relationship with his white coach, a new experience for him.
The film follows Owens’ relationship with his family and his fiancée, and his efforts to learn discipline in his athletic efforts, while officials continue to debate the wisdom of entering the Berlin games. Brundage has returned from Germany, and recommends the U.S. participate in the games. A strong contingent, led by Amateur Athletic Union president Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), opposes participation in the games, considering it a gesture of support for Nazi ideology. The ‘window dressing’ won by Brundage’s negotiations turns out to be effective, and a decision is made to participate.
The next question is whether Owens himself will agree to compete. He is visited by members of the newly formed NAACP, who urge him not to enter the Olympics as a gesture of opposition to Nazi racial policies, and of solidarity with persecuted minorities in Germany. Owens’ father, however, urges him to do as he pleases, cynically believing his actions will not influence Americans either way. Owens is reluctant to even appear to tolerate the philosophy of Aryan supremacy; but others, including some fellow black athletes, regard Owens’ participation as a strike against Nazi policy, and urge him to compete. “Quit thinking so much; it’s not what you’re good at,” his wife tells him; and Owens finally accepts his place in the Berlin Olympics.
In Germany, filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (maker of the infamous Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will) has been conscripted by Adolf Hitler to make a documentary of the Berlin Olympics, in an effort to make the most of the event’s public relations value. The efforts of Riefenstahl to capture the reality of the games, without offending her employers, is used as a gauge for Nazi concerns about the actual competitions. Footage from her film, a paean to the Nazi world view, is shown occasionally during ‘backstage’ scenes of preparation for the games.
Scenes of the Berlin Olympics are set in a detailed recreation of the original site. Owens, as is well known, won a series of gold medals in four separate events; his triumphs are played for drama but without becoming tedious. It is during the games that several issues are brought out in order to make a point.
Although the American contingent outwardly despised the Nazi attitude toward race, the racial hierarchy in place in the U.S. remained in effect during their time in Berlin. Owens makes a token stand against a particularly hostile, racist coach.
Also, the real work of the Nazis continues, even during the games, despite the efforts to keep them hidden from foreign visitors during the Olympics; the efforts to covertly replace Jewish athletes from a relay event at one end of the spectrum, stormtroopers arresting citizens secretly by night at the other.
During Owens attempt at the broad jump, he is given friendly assistance by fellow athlete Carl ‘Luz’ Long, a German competing in the same event. When Owens breaks Long’s effort and wins the event, Long not only congratulates him and shakes his hand, but embraces him – evidently knowing that this will horrify the German officials present and possibly ruin his career, but wishing to make a statement in opposition to the Nazis. After the day’s events, the two men talk at length, and compare the attitudes of their respective nations and governments. Owens acknowledges that there may be “little difference deep down” between U.S. racism and Nazi ideology. Their informal talk serves as a voice for the filmmakers on the theme of the film.
A few historic details have been changed in Race, most significantly that of Adolf Hitler’s reaction to Owens’ wins. Popular belief in the U.S. has it that Hitler was outraged at seeing a black man win a gold medal, and left the stadium without acknowledging Owens. In fact, Hitler was determined to put up a good front, and publicly congratulated Owens as winner. However, the decision to show the ‘urban legend’ version of events is not necessarily misguided. Hitler’s policies and attitude were covered temporarily by a veneer of acceptance. To show Hitler greeting and congratulating Owens would be misleading, unless accompanied by a long and tedious explanation. Showing Hitler walking out, although technically inaccurate, may better represent the reality of the situation – or so the filmmakers may have believed. Others may take a harsher view of their approach, particularly since Owens himself made a point of correcting the misremembered version of events.
As Owens would later comment, it was not Hitler who snubbed his triumphs, but his own president, who refused to congratulate Owens for his wins on behalf of the U.S. or even acknowledge them, as was customary for American Olympic athletes. As the first black American gold medalist, Owens was denied any such attention. This snub was not officially rectified until 1990. These and other slights are not mentioned in the film, but are represented by one final scene, in which Owens and his wife arrive for a banquet in honour of Owens’ Olympic success, and are not permitted to enter through the front door, but must use the service entrance.
Race is presented as a simple account of historic events, written and directed by people accustomed to producing straightforward dramas. The movie works well as a dramatic story, and the equally straightforward message behind it is presented clearly yet without preachiness. In spite of the outcomes being known beforehand, the suspense is maintained well, and the characters, if a little standardised, are engaging. The cast was well chosen without exception, and carry the film through its few slow moments. Even those who dislike sport films in general will be able to appreciate Race, an interesting and enjoyable film on all levels.