‘Race’ Mythologizes a Coach & Hitler’s
Olympics; Marginalizes Jesse Owens’s Life & American Racism
Dunn | @DrStephaneDunn | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Thursday, 25 February 2016.
It’s been a long time coming. Jesse Owens’s life has been a no brainer
for major motion picture treatment. His story has been largely distilled into a
singular famous chapter, the 1936 Berlin Olympics when he famously frustrated
Hitler’s intended representation of Aryan superiority by winning four gold
medals and besting the German World Champion athlete, Luz Long.
life of Owens is a powerful narrative about much more than Olympic glory earned
when Hitler’s terrible project of ethnic cleansing had begun in earnest. It’s
about American racism too – a chapter that requires the camera’s gaze on life
before the Olympics, before Ohio State even, and most certainly post the
The new film Race, directed
by Stephen Hopkins and starring the talented up and coming Stephan James of
John Lewis Selma fame, spends much of the screen time on a
super fictionalized account of Jesse’s track time at Ohio State and the rest
primarily on the actual Olympic games. The visual rendering of James as Owens
on the track field is impressive as James is able to imbibe Owen’s convincingly
enough especially in his running form.
Unfortunately, Race recycles
some by now all too familiar tendencies of Hollywood films dramatizing the
story of Black heroic figures in extraordinary historical moments. Hopkins has
said that the script for the film explored more of Owen’s life after the
Olympics but he decided that the story, the important story, was the Olympic
moment, the most familiar part of Jesse Owens’s life.
part of the story is well known and not altogether shocking since we know how
Hitler felt about Jewish people and Black people as well. The neglect of Owen’s
life after the Olympics, when he came home to years of economic struggle amid
the same Jim Crow society he’d confronted before Germany, is costly.
In lieu of
intimate or deeper attention to his family history and relationships– mother,
father (Henry and Emma Owens), siblings, or even to the extraordinary instance
of his being an unmarried teenage father in the early 1930s, the film attends
to establishing a larger-than-life coach played by Jason Sudeikis–the
archetypical noble white character who acts as a foil to American racism; the
relationship between he and Owens becomes the single most important one
depicted in this ‘biopic’ of Owens’s life while the latter’s father and mother
are virtually mute and back grounded throughout. The film busies itself making
sure Nazi racism gets a star turn and that American racism gets a passing nod.
Franklin Roosevelt did not congratulate Owens with the normal letter or invite
to the White House. The fact that the American government at the time of
Owens’s Olympic glory denied him is given scant attention save for an ending
sentence tag rolled across the screen with a number of others. Owens'
horse racing for money and other struggles are absent too.
Owen’s daughters approved of the script and the
resulting film. It’s understandable that they did given the extremely overdue
motion picture treatment of their father’s story. But this doesn’t mean that
Jesse Owens, his family, and moviegoers, who don’t know him at all or know him
only in relation to that infamous Olympics, didn’t deserve more Jessie Owens
and less Coach Snyder.
professor Stephane Dunn, PhD,
is the director of the Cinema, Television, & Emerging Media Studies program
at Morehouse College. She teaches film, creative writing, and literature. She
is the author of the 2008 book, Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas:
Black Power Action Films (U of Illinois Press). Follow her on Twitter: