Sunday, August 7, 2016

DVD: The Race

"'Cause you know, out there on that track you're free of all this. The moment that gun go off, can't nothing stop me. Not color, not money, not fear, not even hate. There ain't no black and white. There's only fast and slow. For those ten seconds you are completely free."

The Race is a dramatization of Jesse Owen's quest to run in the 1936 Olympics which were held in Nazi Germany. The Olympics were awarded to Germany in 1931 with the intention of supporting the country, but two years later, the country found itself under the control of Hitler and his Nazi party. As the racial policies of the country became known more and more Americans began to question their country's participation in the Berlin Olympics, which would be seen as supporting Hilter, the Nazi party and its policies.

The movie opens in 1933 with Jesse Owens, played by Canadian actor, Stephan James living with his mother, father and sister Laverne in Cleveland, Ohio. He has a passion for running. As a high school athlete Owens tied the record of 9.4 seconds for the 100 yard dash. In the fall of 1933 Jessie prepares to leave for Ohio State University in Columbus.

Before leaving for Ohio State University (OSU) Owens goes to visit his little daughter, Gloria and her mother, Minnie Ruth Solomon who works as a hairdresser.  He promises Ruth he will return to marry her.

In the past three years OSU has had a poor showing at the national college championships. Track coach Larry Snyder, himself once a great runner, is being blamed for the losses and his career looks like it might be finished. He's looking for fresh talent to restart his track team. Snyder has Owens come to his office where he asks him why he came to OSU, a school considered to be very bigoted towards black athletes. Owens tells him that his coach Charlie Riley told him he's a natural runner and that Snyder was the best. Snyder tells him that records don't matter, only gold medals matter. He asks Owens if he wants to run in Berlin in 1936 and Owens indicates that he's concerned that the Germans don't like blacks. But Snyder points out that the same attitudes exist in the United States. He warns Owens that if he wants to run and win he must spend the next 28 months training hard every day.

Meanwhile at a meeting of the U.S. Olympic Committee Convention, Avery Brundage, a former track athlete and Olympian, and now a wealthy businessman head of the American Olympic Committee (AOC) is told that Germany's racist policies towards Jews and Romany Gypsies is a major concern and that a boycott of American athletes is being considered. Officials from the Amateur Athletic Union point out that the Germans are not allowing Jewish athletes to join sports clubs and therefore they are unable to qualify for the Olympics. The Germans also do not want Negroes to compete at the Games. Brundage believes that Germany needs the Olympics and Ambassador Charles Sherrill states that they have assurances from Germany they will not discriminate. However Judge Jeremiah T. Mahoney of AAU states that they cannot trust the Nazis and that he will recommend a boycott. They decide to send Avery Brundage over to Germany to talk to German officials.

Meanwhile at OSU, Owens struggles to find the time to attend practice and work. He writes Ruth and sends her money for their daughter and tells her he has applied for a marriage license. Confronted by Snyder about missing practices, Owens reveals his dilemma and tells Snyder he needs to find a way for him to make money and train.

In 1934 Berlin, Brundage is shown the stadium under construction and is told everything is being recorded by Miss Leni Riefenstahl who was hand-picked by Hitler. Brundage sees for himself the situation in Berlin: Jewish stars on businesses, people being dragged from their homes. Brundage meets Leni and Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda at a lunch. While Leni tries to explain that she wants her film to showcase the Olympic ideals, Brundage doesn't believe her. He tells the Germans that they risk an Olympic games without America unless they come into line and allow Jews and Negroes to participate. He also tells them they have to clean up their press. Goebbels states he will agree if Brundage agrees to support them with the AOC (American Olympic Committee).

Back in Columbus, Snyder gets Owens a job as a page at the Ohio legislature paying him $60 a month and allowing him to train. They work on his start. Jesse continues to face racism and ridicule from the football team which is all white but coach Snyder tells Jesse that this is just a distraction and that he must learn to filter all of this out while he is at the Big Ten meet.

Just before the meet at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1935, Jesse injures his back trying to high jump with friends. In pain he completes in four events over the span of 45 minutes and sets three world records and ties a fourth. Owens competes in the 100 yard dash, the broad jump, the 200 yard dash and the 225 yard hurdles.

Owens and Snyder head to Los Angeles for the NCAA Track and Field Championships. Held at Edwards Stadium in Berkley, Owens wins four events. During his time in LA he meets a woman at a jazz club and becomes romantically involved with her. During this time Brundage returns to Berlin where the situation appears to meet his expectations. He tells Goebbels taht the Americans will be voting soon on whether to participate. Goebbels attempts to bribe Brundage by offering him to be involved in the building of a new German embassy in Washington designed by Albert Speer. Brundage is drawn into looking at the plans and it appears he accepts Goebbels offer.

Back in the United States, Owens affair with Quincella gets into the papers and Minnie Ruth threatens to sue him for breach of promise. Owens unsuccessfully attempts to call Ruth. At a meet in Nebraska, Owens loses the 100 yard dash to his rival Eulace Peacock. The next morning Owens breaks up with Quincella and when he returns to Ohio he goes to see Ruth in Cleveland. At first Ruth runs him out of Ida's Beauty Salon, but not to be deterred, Jesse waits for her to leave and eventually convinces her to marry him.

On December 23, 1935, the U.S. Olympic Committee meets to vote with Brundage arguing for participation and Mahoney arguing for a boycott. When Brundage wins the vote 58 to 56, Mahoney resigns from the AAU, not wanting to be involved in something he finds morally wrong.Owens and Snyder rejoice at this news. Knowing that he will be competing in a country that believes he is part of a inferior race, Owens sets out to win the gold medal in track and to deny Nazi Germany the propaganda it so desperately wants.

Discussion

The Race is a well done, timely movie about Jesse Owens and his winning four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Most young people today do not know who Owens was (my 19 year old daughter had no clue), so there's considerable value in the making of move like The Race to remind us of those people whose light shone brightly in times of darkness. The focus of the movie is on Owen's life leading up to and including his participation in the 1936 Olympics. The title of the movie has a dual meaning, both of a sports event but also referring to the race of a person - in this case black people.

The overarching theme in The Race is the racial bigotry that existed in America in the 1930's and that bigotry was the same hatred that led to the murder of millions of Jews, Catholics, homosexuals and gypsies by the Nazi's in Germany. Like most blacks in 1930's America Owens faced bigotry and discrimination in every aspect of his life. When traveling to Columbus, Owens and his friend sit at the back of the bus. When he meets Larry Snyder for the first time, Owens keeps his eyes cast down, as most blacks were taught to do. Despite his athletic ability, Owens wasn't offered an athletic scholarship and he couldn't room on the campus of OSU.  After working out at the track, Owens and his friend are made to wait until the whites use the locker room showers, and black athletes are not allowed to play football. At the Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor, Owens is booed when he lines up for the 100 yard dash with the other white competitors. When he travels to Germany to participate in the Olympics, the rest of the team are in first class on the ship, but Owens and his black teammate travel in steerage. Even attending a dinner in his honor, Owens and his wife must use the back entrance. At the end of the movie, it is noted that Owens athletic achievements were never acknowledged by the White House in 1936. Against this backdrop the film shows the hypocrisy of America as it protests against the racial policies of Nazi Germany, threatening to boycott the Berlin Olympics.

The Race presents a mostly sanitized Jesse Owens, focusing on his athletic accomplishments and his relationship with his coach, Larry Snyder played by Jason Sudeikis who gives a surprisingly good performance. Jesse is shown as a young man who believes in his ability to run but not so certain off the track. Owen's family was involved in the development of the script, and as a result The Race is a fairly accurate portrayal on the events that occurred. Canadian actor Stephane James trained at Georgia Tech working to get into shape and to run like Owens. The recreation of the 1936 Olympics and Owen's win in the 100 metre dash are amazingly well done.

Of particular interest in this film is Avery Brundage played by Jeremy Irons who makes Brundage look too old for the age of  he would have been in 1933 to 1936. Yet Irons captures the complicated character of Brundage whose backroom deal with the Nazi regime created a great scandal. Another fascinating character of this era was Leni Reifenstahl, Hitler's filmmaker who is portrayed as a moderate German caught in the middle of the conflict between Brundage and Goebbels.Reifenstahl, brilliantly played by actress Carice van Houten, created many films that propagandized the Nazi regime. She appears aloof, professional at times, but genial towards Owens, and determined to make her film, even when Goebbels orders the cameras not to record yet another potential Owen's medal. Goebbels was well portrayed by Barnaby Metschurat who gave the Nazi Minister of Propaganda a creepy, chilling persona. As for Hitler, director Stephen Hopkins made the decision to keep the German chancellor in the background and the focus on Owens, Snyder and the quest to win gold. Hitler's face is only ever seen from the side and he has no lines in the movie.

For more information on the movement to boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics, check out the Holocaust Encyclopedia entry. The entry points out the conflict that developed between Brundage and Mahoney which is portrayed to some degree in The Race. One benefit of America's participation in the 1936 Olympics is that Jesse Owens proved Hitler's idea of one race being superior to all others as the nonsense it was. Owens won the gold medal in the 100 meter dash as well as gold medals in three other events.

You can watch Leni Riefenstahl's documentary, Olympia on Youtube.


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