In the 1930s, Jesse Owens is a young man who is the first in his family to go to college. Going to Ohio State to train under its track and field coach, Larry Snyder, the young African American athlete quickly impresses with his tremendous potential that suggests Olympic material. However, as Owens struggles both with the obligations of his life and the virulent racism against him, the question of whether America would compete at all at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany is being debated vigorously. When the American envoy finds a compromise persuasive with the Third Reich to avert a boycott, Owens has his own moral struggle about going. Upon resolving that issue, Owens and his coach travel to Berlin to participate in a competition that would mark Owens as the greatest of America's Olympians even as the German film director, Leni Riefenstahl, locks horns with her country's Propaganda Minister, Josef Goebbels, to film the politically embarrassing fact for posterity. Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (email@example.com)
It was with some trepidation that I went to see this movie. Jesse Owens had been my sports hero since the eighth grade when I discovered that he had been holding the world broad jump record for 24 years, an extraordinarily long time for a 12-year-old to contemplate, and won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games. But I had the lingering fear that the biopic would emphasize his awards rather than the quest for excellence, as evidenced by his performances, and the usual self-flagellation that whites are supposed to feel for their past treatment of African-Americans even though history can't be changed. I was also put off by the multi-layered but generally meaningless title "Race" which like similar recent one-word titles such as "Rush," "Flight," and "Room" smack of artistic pretension and self- importance, professing to offer so much more than they can possibly deliver.
Happily, I can report that my fears were unfounded. The movie was, by and large, wonderful and a worthy tribute to perhaps the greatest American track and field athlete ever. Yes, it does show some of the seamier sides of the African-American and, to a lesser degree, the Jewish experience at home and during the Berlin games as well as the German people's attitudes at the time but director Stephen Hopkins wisely does not dwell on them too much, since to do so would bring a biased 2015 perspective to the earth-shaking events which were unfolding at the time and the outcome of which had yet to be determined.
Fortunately, the film's main focus is on the athlete during his record-breaking years of 1935-36 and Canadian born Stephen James does an admirable job in portraying the legendary Owens. He manages to keep the emoting down to tolerable levels, presenting Jesse as a polite, respectful, family man with just enough bravado to appreciate his own God-given talents. His performances on the track (and in the broad jump), while hard to emulate the original, are convincing enough. Particularly good are the scenes showing him break or tie four world records at the Big Ten Conference Championships at Ann Arbor, Michigan on May 25th, 1935.
Less credible is Jason Sudeikis' portrayal of Coach Larry Snyder. While he may have been a difficult taskmaster, he comes off as too boorish and too bombastic to earn Owens' unwavering respect. Their relationship, at times, is not entirely convincing. I have to note here that his repeated reference to Charles Paddock's victory in the 1924 Olympic 100 meters is incorrect. Paddock won in 1920. Harold Abrahams of Great Britain won in 1924 (as shown in "Chariots of Fire.").
To be sure, there are questions that the movie does not delve into deeply enough but for a true blue lifetime Jesse Owens fan like myself, the overall effect of the movie is extremely satisfying, not too much and not too little. It is memorable enough that I will want to get the DVD when it comes out.
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