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‘Race’ Mythologizes a Coach & Hitler’s Olympics; Marginalizes Jesse Owens’s Life & American Racism



By Stephane 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.


However, the 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 Olympics.


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.


The Hitler 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.


President 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. 



Writer and 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: @DrStephaneDunn


‘Race’ Mythologizes a Coach & Hitler’s Olympics; Marginalizes Jesse Owens’s Life & American Racism

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