[May contain spoilers].
[Note: If you don’t like anecdotes, please progress onto the next paragraph].
Before I began to explore the social/historical context portrayed in Race, I have to mention my viewing experience. I was completely alone in a huge screening room. In the dark. Did I mention alone? Any happiness I felt at the novelty of the latter instantly drained when the lights went out and the screen went black. VUE cinemas in the UK [as of June 2016] begin each film with the room suddenly plunged into darkness, followed by a booming voice (which I have a hunch belongs to actor Mark Strong) growling ‘Hello’ and an instruction to relax and block out the outside world. Usually, I find this extremely helpful whenever I go to VUE to watch films – when there are others in the room! Being slightly afraid of the dark doesn’t help either. On a serious note, it was disappointing to be the only person in the first of three screenings that day. Even on a late morning weekday, you still share a room with a handful of people. It doesn’t help that it’s currently on a somewhat limited release in the UK; hopefully this will become a sleeper hit in DVD sales and Netflix.
Race (2016, dir. Stephen Hopkins) is the biopic of four-time Olympic Gold Medallist Jesse Owens (Stephan James), and charts his journey from a starry-eyed university fresher to a man facing pressure from all sides to accomplish Olympian victory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics for the USA, a country that, at the time, was not entirely different in its racial beliefs. The film doesn’t shy away from that ironic link.
A biopic raises the question as to whether critics should focus on it as an art form infused with historical elements, or as a historical record presented aesthetically. If cinemagoers aren’t visually entertained, they’re unhappy. If history buffs witness the truth being toyed with, they’re unhappy. I would have liked to have witnessed more of Jesse Owens’ life away from the Civil Rights question. We have glimpses of his proud family – in the dignified sense as well as admiration – with his relationship with his partner Ruth (Shanice Banton) gaining a little more screen time. But what were his flaws, what did he dislike apart from discrimination? The only noticeable flaw was his promising to marry his partner and then taking up with another woman while on the road. Perhaps it’s the feminist in me, but I felt like she forgave him too easily. Ray (2004) worked as a biopic because it doesn’t shy away from portraying Ray Charles as a womaniser; his flaws don’t overshadow his genius. What we received was a slightly sanitised version of the subject’s life. What makes up for that is the excitingly shot and edited sports scenes.
The Historical Significance of Race
The film conveys Owens’ obstacles through dialogue, both past and present: ‘first boy going off to college’ and ‘Things are gonna turn around, you’ll see’ represent the idealism placed on Owens’ shoulders by his family and the wider community. The fact that Owens was the first in his family to attend university establishes American segregationist policies long before the bus scene: Owen’s colleague accidentally bumps a white woman passenger on the bus and she reacts with revulsion as if he is diseased. The fact that many are placing their own hopes and aspirations on Owens’ shoulders can be appreciated. When Owens’ coach digs into him, Owens reminds him of the hurdles (pardon the pun) facing him even as he chases glory. He is shouldering much responsibility. Gradually, the scenes of discrimination get tenser and the language coarser. The second locker room standoff combines overpowering audio techniques: Owens’ coach and the beefy racist American Footballers arguing, with a high-pitched ringing. This is all in aid for Owens to learn how to block out taunting from hostile audiences that he could face both on American and German tracks.
What is annoyingly tacked on at the end, was his snubbing by the White House, which would have been more powerful and indicative of the lack of seismic change for civil rights. The scene where Owens and his wife are forced to use a different entrance for his own party conveys this idea too, but with less gravity. The scene still manages to be turned into a Hollywood happy ending when it should have been more poignant. Another scene which added an interesting layer to the segregation topic was the Olympic Committee headquarters in New York City. While one man argued to boycott the Olympics due to Nazi discrimination laws, Jeremy Irons’ character pipes up with a question if the boycott advocate ‘golfs with Jews and Negroes’. Despite attempts to appear morally just, these men fall short because of the situation in their own country.
As for Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten, Black Book, Game of Thrones), Race rightly credits her burgeoning career as a female director against the backdrop of Nazi Germany. Riefenstahl herself is an issue of contention, with some labelling her as the mouthpiece of Nazi ideology and others praising her talents as an artist. It is noted that she benefitted from an exceptionally-close relationship with the upper tiers of Nazi powers. What is possibly alluded to in Leni’s showdown with Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) is that he is fuelled by the threat of Riefenstahl’s unchecked free reign handed to her by Hitler. In fact, it was this intimate relationship with Nazi officials that fuels sceptics of Riefenstahl’s innocence post-war. Metschurat has the unfortunate task of playing a Goebbels, the party-pooper of the Olympics; that one person who can’t leave their issues at home. The rest of Germany manages it, yet every medium close up illustrates Goebbels as someone who is unable to feign a public face like the one asked of the people in the face of international scrutiny. Riefenstahl defies orders not to film any more Nazi humiliation at the hands of African-American athletes, however critics such as Alex von Tunzelmann find nothing praiseworthy of Riefenstahl’s preoccupation with Owens in Olympia (1938): his ‘bashful, slightly goofy smile’ is ‘almost like an acknowledgement that he is a human being’. One of the last frames of the film does appear to be an homage to Riefenstahl’s style; the shot of Owens in the air against heavenly clouds, resembles the opening of Olympia: Festival of Nations where athletic prowess is juxtaposed with a beautiful sky.
- The film entirely glosses over Owens’ claim: ‘Hitler didn’t snub me; it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.’ Definitely not defending Hitler, but more defending history: Roosevelt escaped scrutiny while Hitler was left to champion Bad Leader of a Country Award when, judging by Owens’ above quote, isn’t entirely the case regarding treatment of athletes.
- I cackled more than I should have at the only two portrayed US Jewish athletes shoving their Star of David necklaces at the Nazi guards with such glee. Priceless.
Although Hollywood falls into the tri-trope black narrative of slavery, gangs and famous figures, Race is a step forward and thus deserves to be acknowledged. It’s not just insight into the Civil Rights movement, and the weight of this on a young African-American athlete, but a universal tale of “doing your thing” despite emotional and psychological burden. For a further Jesse Owens fix, I would suggest viewing Olympia and witness real (and re-enacted) footage of his Olympic performance.
[Special mention: I’m happy to see Rachel Portman is behind the soundtrack for this film. Her soundtrack for Belle (2013) is gorgeous. Woo female composers].
 David Ritz, ’It’s a Shame About Ray. Why must biopics sentimentalize their subjects?’, Slate, 22nd October 2004. Available from: <http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/life_and_art/2004/10/its_a_shame_about_ray.html>
 Alex von Tunzelmann, ‘The shameful legacy of the Olympic Games’, Guardian, 14th June 2012. Available from: <http://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/jun/14/shameful-legacy-olympics-1936-berlin>
 Olympia. Dir. Leni Riefenstahl. Tobis. 1938.
 Jeremy Schaap, Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007), p. 211.