Directed by Stephan James
Starring Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, Carice van Houten, William Hurt, Eli Goree, Shanice Banton, Barnaby Metschurat, Glynn Turman, Amanda Crew, Adam Zwicker.
This biopic retells the historic moment where a young African-American athlete Jesse Owens came to defy the Nazi’s Aryan ideology.
Anybody familiar with their history will be full acquainted with the athletic icon Jesse Owens (portrayed here by director Stephan James), and what he came to define – in the 1936 Berlin Olympics he had participated in three track and field games, and successfully undermined the Nazi’s the Aryan supremacy by winning the gold. This rhetoric was one that Adolf Hitler and the Reich’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) tried to aggressively propagate to the world. Now filmmaker Stephan James is confident that the audience will come into this picture with that in mind (the marketing does emphasise the triumph of Jesse Owens), so the film therefore focuses on celebrating the icon.
The film begins in Owens’ days at Ohio State University during America’s Great Depression. It’s here that his athletic prowess grabs the attention of Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Snyder insists on obedience and loyalty from his athletes – although mostly from Owens for he believes will get the gold medal in the upcoming Olympic games. By making the characters fully aware of Owens’ ability, and foreshadowing his inevitable triumph at the Olympic Games, the film can focus on celebrating the icon. There are anachronistic moments for certain characters do appear significantly more progressive in the 21st century mindset than necessarily of the 1930s segregation-era, but it’s clear the film wants to glorify an acknowledged, yet too often overlooked American icon.
Running in parallel to Owens’ story are the politics; or more precisely, the racial divide, and the awareness of the systematic anti-Semitism permeating Germany. The American Olympic Committee is considering a boycott upon hearing rumours of the Nazi’s destruction against its Jewish citizens, and the removal of gypsies from their nation. Jeremiah Mahoney (Jeremy Irons), a millionaire industrialist is the first raise the hypocrisy of the committee: “Have you ever met a Nazi? Have you ever played golf with a Jew?” Mahoney wishes to negotiate and travels to Germany to see what can be done. It’s during this side of the narrative parallel that the film rests on the precipice of cartoony. The grey colour scheme of Nazi Germany resembles much like sci-fi dystopia. Yes, Nazi Germany was really, really, bad, but some nuance would have been nice.
Speaking of a lack of subtlety, the portrayal of Goebbels is camp. Whenever he enters a space that is occupied by German officials, these officials stand to attention, cease their conversations and endeavours, and focus entirely on him. The awkward silences transcend beyond the film; we feel it too, and we can only laugh it off. Furthermore, the sporadic concealing of Adolf Hitler’s (Adam Zwicker) face elicits less fear, and more ham-fisted villainy. It is clear that James wants to convey him as a mysterious menace, but it comes undone when it’s shown alongside Goebbels’ unthreatening demeanour.
The strengths of this film far outweigh such pitfalls, and it would be a disservice not to acknowledge this. In keeping the racial politics firmly on the sleeve it never loses sight of its overall message, that bigotry always comes undone. Therefore, the film allows the audience to engage with Jesse Owens on a much more intimate level. As success comes to Owens, so does the inflation of his ego. Besides a misguided middle-act affair (it seems almost obligatory in narratives of this ilk), the film doesn’t lose sight. It’s a story that celebrates his accomplishments whilst nodding to the characters pitfalls.
Stephan James portrays Jesse Owens is a single-minded, resilient, and quietly optimistic hero. He knows that at this moment in the nation’s history his accomplishments will not bring about major social change, he acknowledges that members of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) are sceptical, and he understands the major implications of his participation in the Olympics both at home and abroad, but he doesn’t delude himself into thinking his actions will have an immediate, tangible consequence for his community. In fact, he knows something farther reaching may spawn from his achievements.
Race is a heartfelt celebration of an American icon.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★