An athlete with the ability to streak down the track. Racial tensions that run high. A coach who sees more than just color, he sees talent. It is the world on the precipice of change. An economy on the brink of disaster. Jesse Owens not only made his mark in history as one of the greatest track and field stars, he was a humble man who worked hard and tried to make his way through life the smart way – not by fighting, but by using wit and intellect to get ahead. It couldn’t have been easy back in the 1930’s when racial inequality ran rampant, and an African American man had to work twice as hard to prove himself, no matter his trade or schooling. Jesse meets Lawrence Synder and Coach Reilly. Jesse works hard, trains hard and is pushed to his limits. He is full of drive and purpose. However, with the looming Olympic Games about to take place in Berlin, Germany, tensions flare and anti-African American and anti-Jewish sentiment are palpable. In Germany, a new sports arena is being built. An American financier goes to Berlin to observe the progress of the building, the relations in Germany and testing the anti-American sentiment. Avery Brundage, an American representative of the Olympic Committee finds himself in the company of several high-ranking German officers and Dr. Joseph Goebbels, in attempting to get certain racial restrictions removed, tensions mount.
Jesse learns that running/jumping and training are not necessarily the same thing. Under the watchful eye of Larry, the track team trains smarter, not harder. Watching the movie gives you a sense of what challenges athletes had to face at the best of times. Imagine competing for a spot in the Olympics, in the 1930s, when Nazi Germany was releasing all kinds of horrid propaganda against Jewish people and then adding further insult to injury by wanting to exclude African American people. Not only did Jesse have to face racism on his own turf, but going abroad wasn’t exactly the most welcoming thought, either.
In watching this movie, I was cheering behind Jesse all the way. What makes me sad is when I saw the hatred and prejudice this man faced. But people underestimated Jesse Owens and his tenacity. Jesse just kept going, smashing those records, breaking through some of those racial prejudices and just keep on triumphing. Interestingly enough, Game of Thrones alum Carice Van Houten plays Leni Rienfstahl, famed documentary filmmaker and is in charge of filming the Olympics in such a way that not only does it make the German people look good, but it pleases Hitler himself. She was placed in charge of the media relations so that Germany could look like a very progressive country by hosting the games. And yet, we all know that was not the case. Watching Dr. Goebbels in action was horrifying. His extreme prejudice and racism only led to hate and suffering.
The Olympic Games finds itself in the heart of German society, but what takes place just blows everybody away. Jesse wins four Olympic medals – an unprecedented and amazing feat. Several instances of discrimination take place during the Olympics and Jesse has to take a stand a few times. Of course, we’re not surprised, given the sentiment of the time. My favorite part was when Jesse not only stood up to stuffy trainers but when he supported some of his team members. To live in a time like that must have been oppressive and I can see why Jesse could have felt like giving up. And when Jesse wins the final medal – well, not only did it help to inspire his country, ironically, Leni sees that you cannot change progress, no matter how much the Furher and Dr. Goebbels try to stop it from happening. And she films Jesse doing his final jump. I had many emotions while watching this movie: fear, sadness, hope and determination. Jesse Owens was a credit to his family and a true patriotic citizen for the way he composed himself. I’d like to think that movie was one that provided hope to anyone who ever felt oppressed or scared. It takes guts and a backbone to stand up and do what is right, even when you feel alone, or scared or threatened. In the end, Jesse displayed all the characteristics of a hero: courage under fire, grace under pressure, good sportsmanship, team collaboration and an indomitable spirit. If you like movies about people who fight and win against the odds, then tune into this one. This is a real winner. Director Stephen Hopkins (House of Lies and 24) really captures the times and the man.
To get caught up in the challenging yet rewarding life of Jesse Owens, played by Stephan James (Selma) see Race debuting on HBO Saturday, November 19 at 8:00pm.