Let’s be honest— racism is a really ugly sin. It has ruined far too many lives, and it is still a major problem in America. Yes, we’ve made some progress in my lifetime, but not nearly enough. If you doubt this, remember last year and what happened in Ferguson, Missouri or Baltimore Maryland, or, or, or… The Jesse Owens story is unfortunately not merely a story about athletic greatness, though it is that. It is also a story about the pernicious and continual influence of racism. Anyone who has doubts about human fallenness, and its sub-category racism needs to go and see this movie. This movie is not of the same caliber as say The Color Purple or even Lincoln, but it is a good movie, and if you are looking for a teachable moment with your children who enjoy sports— here’s your opportunity.
The story as told in the movie ‘Race’ sensibly focuses on one particular swath of the life of Jesse Owens— 1933-36, concluding with the Olympic Games in Berlin and the aftermath. Even so, the movie is 2 hours and 4 minutes long. Still, one could have wished for a little more back story, a little more setting of the stage, but the story as told is well done. It is a story of a runner and his coach, as well as a story of the runner and his girl (and daughter). Full marks to the producers for not portraying Jesse Owens as a true sports hero, but not as a saint (he had a daughter before he got married, but at least he married the mother of his child and they had two more daughters and remained married until Jesse died in 1980).
Jesse Owens, or as he really was named J. C. Owens (his school teacher misunderstood his name, and the misnomer Jesse stuck) was a son of the South, and like so many African Americans growing up in the South before desegregation, his family moved north to Cleveland Ohio where there was presumably less overt racism. Jesse was a smart young man, and was the first in his family to go to college, attending Ohio State in Columbus. It was there that he met Larry Snyder, one heck of a track coach, and a college national champion in track himself in the late 20s. The story glides along nicely as Owens hones his craft by winning various college track contests and setting records in Chicago and elsewhere.
Both Jason Sudeikis as Snyder and Stephan James as Jesse are very good, indeed I would say Sudeikis deserves an Oscar nomination at least. The supporting cast is good as well. William Hurt and Jeremy Irons are quite good as the Olympic committee folks. Irons is especially impressive, and also unrecognizable with his moustache etc. He plays Avery Brundage, who was still doing his Olympic gig when I got interested in the games in the 60s and 70s. Brundage, it turns out, made a deal with the Devil to get America to the games, and by the Devil I mean Joseph Goebbels no less. The comprises he made along the way are not pretty, but full disclosure, 1936 was before the invasion of Poland by Hitler. A story has to be evaluated according to the time in which is set.
In another movie about track and field and the Olympics Eric Liddle, who, like Owens, nearly boycotted the Olympics due to reasons of conscience (he was a devout Scottish Christian who would not compete on Sundays) once said this ‘I believe God has made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure’ (see the excellent movie Chariots of Fire). Jesse Owens could have said much the same. This movie is not quite as good as Chariots of Fire, and is set only a little later than it, but it is well worth taking the family to, and then having a good talk about one of America’s besetting sins. The sports part of the film is enjoyable and uplifting as well.