Many have seen the grainy black and white images of Jesse Owens’ triumphant quadruple-gold medal performance at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, but how many know the story behind it? Those images, captured by German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, were the first ever televised, the first that the world saw being broadcast, the first that any beings light years away will ever see of Earth and its inhabitants. Knowing the importance of Riefenstahl’s camera, and how Germany would be viewed by the world, Adolf Hitler wanted to put his best foot forward with a showing of a “reinvented” Olympiad that welcomed diversity while whitewashing the Nazi politics happening behind the scenes. One of the ways this was accomplished was by allowing the United States to have Jews and African-Americans on their team; something that was battled on the U.S. homefront between U.S. Olympic Committee President Jeremiah Mahoney and future International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage. Mahoney pushed for a boycott of the games because of Nazi politics while Brundage pushed for a separation of politics and sports. Needless to say, Brundage eventually won, opening the door for a young African-American named Jesse Owens to make the U.S. Olympic team, travel to Berlin, run in front of Adolf Hitler and win over the the hearts of the Germans and the world alike. But beyond the machinations that get Owens to the Olympics is what happened to Jesse Owens as a man, a son, a father, an African-American and an athlete which is where “Race” goes for the gold and wins.
There has been no big screen telling of Jesse Owens story until now. But enter screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse along with director Stephen Hopkins, and with the blessing and involvement of Owens’ three daughters, and that oversight in cinema is now corrected with “Race.”
Scribes Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse have done an outstanding job of melding key issues of 1933-1936, that are as timely and topical today as they were then – politics, sports, sportsmanship, friendship, social stigmas, discrimination, feminism – all under the banner of the story of a man who, while flawed, was really the salt of the earth with core values and a strength of conviction in himself and his belief in family and responsibility. A testament to their work is the collaboration with Owens’ daughters who provided much archival and personal material to insure accuracy and truth. And it is within that truth where “Race” sprints ahead with its messaging and living example during Jesse Owens’ life that friendship and sportsmanship rise above politics and discrimination.
We first meet a young 19-year old Jesse Owens struggling to help support his parents, siblings, girlfriend Ruth and his infant child. He works any job he can get, while his mother pushes his education, but above all, Jesse Owens runs. Running is his escape, his freedom. He needs to run the way the rest of us need oxygen. And run he does, all the way to Ohio State University and Coach Larry Snyder. Under Snyder’s mentorship and tutelage, Owens continues to excel at track, but beyond that, he excels in personal growth as a strong friendship develops between Snyder – a White man – and Owens – a Black man.
When the time comes for Owens to go to Berlin, he is pressured from all sides. Run for the United States. Run for the Black community. Run for the honor of Ohio State. Run to make a statement against Nazi Germany. But ultimately, Jesse Owens knows who and what he must run for. Himself.
As we see unfold in “Race”, once in Germany, Owens was treated more inclusively than in the deeply segregated United States. He slept in the dorms with all the white athletes. Ate in the same cafeterias and sat at the same tables with them. Showered in the same locker rooms. This was a freedom he never experienced at home. But it was also part of Hitler’s whitewashing of the truth behind the Games; something for which director Stephen Hopkins provides glimpses that are both telling and chilling.
Once the Games begin, Leni Riefenstahl is omnipresent with her camera and crew, capturing all the unfolding events. While Hitler is pleased with her filming, Joseph Goebbels is not and tries to shut her down when it comes to filming a winning Jesse Owens. Undeterred, Riefenstahl captured what has since become iconic film footage for the world. But what Riefenstahl’s lens also captured was friendship and sportsmanship rising above politics, in the form of Jesse Owens and German track star Carl “Luz” Long.
The relationship between Carl Long and Jesse Owens – and the performances by Stephan James and David Kross – is not only inspiring, but makes your heart swell with pride as they show the world what life should be all about. Kross is ideal as Long, complete with the Aryan look of the day, but infusing emotion and warmth into the character that belies German politics. Complementing that dynamic is Jason Sudeikis as Larry Snyder and the unfolding friendship between Snyder and Owens with rich nuance, texture and color blindness. But having the thematic elements on the page is one thing. In a film like “Race”, it falls to performances and visual grammar to convey the poetry of emotion that comes with these themes and that’s where Stephen Hopkins soars, starting with the casting of Stephan James.
James finds that balance between dramatic performance and athleticism, with neither side of the persona being short changed. First catching my attention in his last sports movie, “When The Games Stands Tall”, there is a visible maturity and emotional growth in his performance which he brings to the role of Jesse Owens.
According to James, he knew “very little” about Jesse Owens going into this project. “I had to research and remind myself about who he was and what he had done. . .Even moreso than the athlete he was, the fastest man on the planet and this big star, I was attracted to him as a person, who he was as a human being. I learned so many things about him as a man, as a father. . .It blew me away to learn about the type of humanitarian he was. He was a person who treated everybody exactly how he wanted to be treated. A person who was color blind. He didn’t see color. All he saw was the love for his sport – running. Through that he was able to transcend not only the sport, but the world. . .It was, how do I capture who he is as a human being and show people that; bring a level of humanity to this hero.” Expounding, James notes, “The biggest thing for me was to try to be accurate. That’s not only with the way he physically did things, running-wise, or how he spoke, his cadences, how he carried himself, but just the whole story in general.”
Describing his preparation as “the devil is in the details”, so intent was James on authenticity in his performance that while shooting “Selma” in Atlanta, on his days off and in preparation for “Race.” “I went down to Georgia Tech and was training with the track and field coaches there to make sure that I was getting my conditioning right, that I was learning not only how to run fast, but how to run like Jesse because of how particular his running style was. I had to pay attention to the details. I had to pay attention to how he started, what was his stride like, what was his face like, everything.”
James’ hard work pays off as he embodies the very essence of Jesse Owens.
Casting of William Hurt and Jeremy Irons as Jeremiah Mahoney and Avery Brundage, respectively, is perfection personified. I can envision no one but Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage. Much appreciated, and adding great gravitas to the history of this story, is the inclusion of much of the dialogue from the actual speeches made by Mahoney and Brundage when debating the issue of the Olympic boycott.
Notable is the inclusion of and focus on Leni Riefenstahl and the performance of Carice van Houten. In addition to tackling issues of religious, ethnic and racial discrimination, the script is all inclusive with the feminist angle as well. van Houten comes across with an independently defiant, yet feminine and functional persona a la Katharine Hepburn. Sadly, this is one of the shortcomings of “Race” in that there are so many layers and undertones to the story that it is impossible to cover all sufficiently in the allotted screen time. van Houten’s story alone is worthy of a feature film. Similarly, a story on Avery Brundage; something of which we only get a small taste here.
In developing the construct for “Race”, Hopkins faced the challenge of creating the visual grammar to match that of the emotional threads of the story as a whole, and particularly in balancing the fundamental ideals espoused by Avery Brundage that sportsmanship and friendship are not only separate and apart, but trump, politics and societal baggage. As Hopkinse told me, “You want to tell a story like this without judging it. You don’t want to be preachy about it. You don’t want to put huge amounts of judgment on the story. What’s still strange is that it’s fairytale like. . . Someone comes from the wrong side of the tracks who meets someone 15 years older and whose driven in a complete different way. They partner up. They go through this almost Forrest Gump kind of quality [Owens] goes through. He just wants to run and he just wants to feel free [but] he’s caught up in this maelstrom of politics and ends up going to this crazy stadium in Berlin and beating the Nazis and destroying their dream of being called the Nazi Olympics as opposed to just The Olympics. It feels so fairytale, you have to remind yourself that had already happened. I think that’s the sort of key to this.”
Noting that “It’s the kind of story that couldn’t really happen now because the Olympics now are all financial and there’s a lot of corruption in the Olympics, as there was then, but even more now, I think, because of all the money that’s involved”, Hopkins was determined “to make a modern film. . . [You] have a young man who’s an African-American. What’s he running for? Is he running for his country where racism is a part of institutional law? He’s really running for himself and his family in the end.”
Thanks to Stephen Hopkins’ direction and access to the actual Berlin stadium and other locations from 1936, including filming inside Hitler’s box [where he did NOT shake the hand of gold medal winner Owens], we are in the moment. We feel the grandeur, the thrill of the Olympiad as his cameras helmed by cinematographer Peter Levy, emerge through the stadium tunnel onto the field, following Stephan James as Jesse Owens, himself walking for the very first time those same steps as Owens. James’ emotion is raw, pure, intense, full of pride and joy, every bit of which we see and feel through the lens.
The emotional beats and construct of “Race” rise and fall on the visuals, and in particular, the cadence of the editing by John Smith and as mentioned above, the locations, which are exquisitely lensed by Levy. Nothing can top the intensity and awe of those first images inside the Berlin Olympic Stadium. And again, the historical significance of shooting inside Hitler’s box is unparalleled. With actual minimal race time (according to Hopkins, less than five minutes of running overall on screen, but which is stunningly rendered thanks to Stephan James’ authenticity and that of the other athletes), the slow motion tape breaking effect is “so Olympic”, so “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” in emotional scope, that one gets goosebumps while clenching fists and grabbing the arms of the chair, just hoping that Jesse prevails, even though we already know the outcome. Levy and Hopkins deliver an expansive, yet intimate, visual palette that engages, inspires, and gives pause to reflection and thought on the thematic elements.
Color is king with “Race”, as the film is steeped in the colors and textures of the day with costuming and production design. The “whitewashing” (literally and figuratively) of the buildings in Berlin just screams tacit metaphor, and is further propelled by the snippets of over the shoulder glances by Coach Snyder down the alley for quick glimpses of Jews being loaded onto trucks and herded away. The unfolding visual subtext is quite often more powerful and telling than the primary focus of Jesse Owens. And what of Mario Davignon’s costume design? Olympic uniforms are spot on for the day and for the various countries. Collegiate U.S. dress is period perfect, as is the stylish nature of Ruth Solomon Owens and her friends. Telling is the costume design for Goebbels with the over-sized neck and shoulders on the jacket which metaphorically make Barnaby Metschurat look like a little boy trying to be a big man. Given that Goebbels had a club foot and was “less than perfect” is itself an irony that cannot be overlooked.
Perhaps director Stephen Hopkins sums up “Race” best with this story about Jesse Owens. “His best friend became ‘Luz’ Long which is an amazing story by itself. Their friendship was so close. We have all their letters and the last letter written from Carl Long to Jesse was from Palermo when the Americans arrived to invade and he wrote, ‘I’m about to die. I think they’re coming for us. I want you to go and find my son in Germany wherever he is and tell him I was never a Nazi.’ Jesse actually searched for his son for years after the war and found him and gave him all the letters. . .These are incredible stories.”
A solidly executed biopic that crosses the finish line a winner, “Race” eloquently captures the poignancy and importance of this chapter in a man’s life and in the broader context of world history, U.S. history, sporting history, the history of humanity. Despite the best efforts of Germany and Hitler to showcase Germany and its superiority and purity, despite the religious, ethnic and gender discrimination running rampant in the U.S. and Germany, the truth and humanity won out. One man showed the world what it really meant to be faster, higher and stronger – with his heart and with his conviction in himself. That story is “Race.”
Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse
Cast: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt, Carice van Houten, David Kross, Barnaby Metschurat