Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 14 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 2 .
Our star rating (1-5): 4
When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous, but dismay to evildoers.
For the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones.
The righteous shall be kept safe forever,
but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize?
Run in such a way that you may win it.
1 Corinthians 9:24
Director Stephen Hopkins’ biographical film from a screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse about Olympic track star Jesse Owens is a social justice as well as a sports film. It follows in the proud tradition of The Jackie Robinson Story; 42; Remember the Titans; Glory Road; Invictus; McFarland, USA; and a host of others. Although James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens was born a sharecropper’s son in Alabama, the film opens in Cleveland, Ohio, where the Owens family had moved as part of the mass migration from the South during the 20s and 30s. (The film passes over the incident wherein a high school teacher had asked for the new student’s name for her role book and had mistaken his answer of “J.C. Owens” to mean Jessie Owens, this mistake becoming the nickname that stayed with him throughout his life.)
Already known for his track achievements in high school, Jesse (Stephan James) is working several jobs in order to earn support money for his long-time girlfriend Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton) and their out of wedlock daughter. When Jesse enters Ohio State University on an athletic scholarship, track coach Larry Snyder (Stephan James) becomes his mentor, even helping him with finances so that his time will not be split between a part-time job and his rigorous training. There follows the usual sequence of shots showing the tough training regimine every successful sports figure must endure. Jesse more than lives up to his coach’s expectations, as we see in the sequence at the 1935 Big Ten Track Meet at Ann Arbor Michigan where in under an hour the athlete sets three world records. This has been called “the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport.” It looks like Jesse will be a shoo-in for the American Olympic Track Team and the opportunity to win further glory at the Berlin Olympic Games. Or will it?
This question is dealt with in the sub-story centering on American Olympic Committee president Judge Jeremiah Maroney (William Hurt) and industrialist Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons). Maroney wants to boycott the Olympics because of the reports of the oppression of Jews coming out of Nazi Germany, as well as Hitler’s decree that no Jews or blacks be allowed to play. Their debate is passionate, with Brundage siding with the athletes who have worked so hard to earn the right to compete in the Games. He argues that Depression weary Americans are craving for the kind of hero that the Olympics can provide. Brundage travels to Germany to negotiate with Hitler’s right hand man in charge of the games Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), Minister of Propaganda. The Nazis, faced with the Americans threat of a boycott, give in to the demand that all athletes be allowed to compete. Hitler is convinced that the German athletes will emerge triumphant, proving his racial claims of the superiority of the Aryan race.
Although the Germans accede to the Americans’ demands, the US Olympic Committee is still split about taking part, finally siding with Brundage. However, Jesse’s participation is still up in the air because an official from the NAACP visits him and his family with the request to stay home. The civil rights group has joined its sister Jewish organizations in lobbying for the Olympics boycott. Thus Jesse is caught up in the international tug of war waged by those opposed to tyranny and those willing to compromise with it for the sake of the Games. Owens’ father Henry (Andrew Moodie) observes that he will be criticized no matter what he decides: racists hate him whether he plays or doesn’t, wins or loses, and their own people will reject him if he plays and loses.
A second sub-story of struggle also is woven throughout the film, that of famous (or to many “infamous”) German actress turned filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten). She had won Hitler’s favor by her truly artistic Triumph of the Will, filmed at the 1934 Nazi Party Convention in Nuremberg. Still considered by many as the best propaganda movie of all time, its making had been opposed by Goebbels, partly because of her sex. Apparently regarding her as a rival, he places various roadblocks in her way before and during the Games, but, because she knows she has Hitler’s personal backing, she manages to overcome them all, thus producing what has been regarded as the first and best Olympic documentary film ever, Olympia. She had over 30 cameras shooting the events as they happened, but she also staged many shots to achieve artistic angles impossible to capture during the actual event. Notorious for re-shooting a scene as many as 50 times, here we see her asking Jesse to make a broad jump just once more. As depicted here, Leni is portrayed as an independent-minded filmmaker, and less the Nazi party loyalist most observers believed her to be.
The film concentrates on the years between 1934 and 1936, and it does show a major flaw in Jesse’s character. His marvelous track performance at Ann Arbor had made him a celebrity despite his race. This apparently went to his head when young female fans showered him with attention. Foresaking Ruth and his daughter back home, he entered into an affair with Los Angeles socialite Quincella Nickerson (Chantel Riley). Ruth found out about their relationship by reading about it in a newspaper. It took considerable effort on Jesse’s part, once he came to his senses, to woo her back.
The film’s title serves it well with its double meaning. Jesse might well say, referring to the oval track, “Out there there ain’t no black or white, just fast or slow,” but off the track his race very much matters. He might as well be living back in Jim Crow Alabama as in Ohio, because when he boards the bus for Columbus, he has to sit in the back of the bus. At OSU the racist football players stop him and a teammate from entering the showers while the football players are using them. In the locker room coach Snyder engages in a heated argument with the football coach over the right of his black athletes to use the facilities. Indeed, it is Coach Snyder who brings Jesse himself out of the servility that his Southern heritage has embedded in him. When they first meet Jesses does not make eye contact, looking downward instead, as generations of Southern blacks were trained to do. Snyder orders his new student to look at him directly, at which point we can see by the young man’s expression the dawning of a newfound freedom.
Jesse’s stepping into the huge Nazi stadium designed by Speer is a thrilling cinematic moment, the camera slowly panning around the throngs and then tilting upward to reveal the enormous dirigible The Hindenburg flying overhead. Jesse not only wins two gold medals in racing and one in the broad jump, he also gains a friend in his chief competitor Carl “Luz” Long (David Kross).
European broad jump champion Luz, himself deserving a film devoted to telling his story, is watching the other athletes attempt to qualify when he sees Jesse foul by stepping over the line when launching himself into the air. The German walks over to the dejected athlete and advises him to start his jump several inches behind the line because Jesse always jumped farther than the 7.5 meter requirement. The American does so, and easily qualifies. In the final contest Jessie comes in first, and Luz second. The German congratulates Jesse and poses with him for a picture, even though he knows that Hitler would not be pleased by this show of sportsmanship. Hitler himself does not shake hands with any of the victors because of a dispute with the Olympic Committee. On the first day of the Games he had congratulated the German winners and then left the stadium. The Olympic Committee insisted that he thereafter would shake hands with all winners or none at all, and so the dictator chose the latter.
Jesse’s 4th gold medal, in the 4 x100 meter relay, came about because American complicity in the Nazis’ racist politics. The decision was made to bench the two Jewish athletes of the American relay team, Marty Glickman (Jeremy Ferdman) and Sam Stoller (Giacomo Gianniotti), allegedly because the Nazis had kept hidden two top athletes that were faster than the Amricans. Supposedly Jesse and another runner, faster than Glickman and Stoller, are necessary for the gold. Jesse objects, not wanting to displace anyone, but the coach over rules him. The film does not spare Avery Brundage from being involved in the humiliating decision, the Olympic Committee member apparently deferring to Hitler’s wishes.
It has taken Hollywood a long time to honor Jesse Owens’ incredible achievements in Berlin—80 years in all. This film does a credible job, with Stephan James especially inspiring in the title role. (He played C-R leader John Lewis in Selma.) As a record of the racism endemic still to our society, the film moves far beyond the topic of sports achievement. Even back in New York Jesse, now married to Ruth, faced discrimination when, after a ticker tape parade in honor of his achievements, he was forced by the management of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to reach the banquet hall where guests were waiting to meet him by way of a freight elevator rather than through the front door. The film’s end notes also report that President Roosevelt never sent him a telegram of congratulations or invited him to the White House, as would be the normal honor given to an Olympian multiple-gold medal winner. What a sad commentary, given that Jesse Owens great accomplishment was his destruction of the Nazi myth of Aryan supremacy! I would love to know where Eleanor was and what she said to her husband about this, given her strong advocacy for Marian Anderson and the Tuskegee Airmen.
This is an excellent film for church youth groups to see and discuss. Young viewers will readily see its relevance to the Black Lives Matter movement and the racist events around the country that inspired it. Hopefully the film will not get lost amidst all the hoopla over the silly super hero epics that too often dominate the screens of cinemaplexes. Here is a real hero who pushes his physical and mental powers to their limits without any recourse to super powers. With the help of readers like you, this film will find the large audience that it deserves
Note: The 1936 Olympics also figures in the film Unbroken, the story of runner Louis Zamperini who ran in the 5000-meter race. Although he did not win a medal, coming in 8th, his final lap of 56 seconds was fast enough to gain the attention of Hitler, who asked for a meeting.
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the March issue of Visual Parables.