The legend of Jesse Owens has long and sadly been relegated to history text books, grandfathers’ knees and the occasional sports talk show. At best.
And so it was with great pleasure that this former sports editor saw the seats full when my dear wife Karen and I walked into the biggest of the Regal Cinemas theaters in the Shoppingtown Mall for a Friday night showing of Race, the cleverly named biopic to chronicle America’s treasured African American runner’s rise to four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
And it with greater pleasure when I heard all those folks around us clap when the credits rolled on the 2-hour, 14-minute film written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse and directed bu Stephen Hopkins. Black folks, white folks, old folks, young folks and a bunch of people in between, too, had witnessed together a dramatic telling of an important period in Owens’ life and American — no, make that world — history.
We saw through admirable and deep work by Stephan James as Owens and solid and searching work by Jason Sudeikes as his college coach a three-year period when one young man from Cleveland had to learn how to use not only his legs in sub-10-second-bursts to become the fastest human in the world but his mind, always, to figure out what his family, race, country the world, and even himself, wanted and needed from this life.
The relationship between Owens and Larry Snyder stands at the core of Race as so much swirled around in the life of the young runner. As the film depicts, the Ohio State coach, though far from perfect, lived through disappointments and conflicts that helped his young runner focus on the resolve needed to face the mountain of hate and expectations thrown on his two shoulders in the tense political times.
Director Hopkins draws a hateful picture of the Nazi regime as he portrays the political ping-pong game between the head of the AAU and U.S. Olympic Committee before a vote to decide whether to send or athletes or boycott Adolph Hitler’s Games. Jeremy Irons seems half confused and half sinister as Avery Brundage, the industrialist-diplomat sent to broker a better-acting Berlin, and William Hurt appears thoroughly tired as Jeremiah Mahoney, the A.A.U. Chief.
Over in Berlin, meanwhile, we hardly see Hitler. Instead, sinister minister of culture Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) is running the show. The one likeable Nazi, meanwhile, is a filmmaker (Leni Riefenstahl), who makes sure that Goebbels doesn’t stop her crew from capturing Owens’ run to glory.
And the human side of the competition surfaces best when German broad jumper Carl “Luz” Long (David Kross) goes out of his way to make sure Owens not only feels welcome, but knows that this world-class athlete does not stand for his government’s hatred.
Owens showed his grace and grit when he stood up for the two Jewish U.S. runners scrapped from their lone relay race in a last-ditch move maneuvered by the under-handed Brundage. I wondered how many in the Syracuse crowd realized that one of them, Marty Glickman, was a student at Syracuse University who turned out to be one of the best sports radio announcers of all time.
After his relay run to that fourth gold, Owens faced more racism at home, the movie-makers remind us. The White House never invited him for a visit.