It’s still chilling to visit Berlin in 1936, and see the
Nazi banners, and be confronted with the terrible spectacle of
Fascism without restraint. It
makes Jesse Owens’ incredible performance in those Olympic Games
even more satisfying, because Hitler and his thugs were so intent on
these Olympics being a showcase for Aryan superiority.
Owens won four gold medals: in the 100, 200, broad jump, and
the 4x100 relay. It was
a glorious case of a big-time athlete rising to the occasion on a
big-time stage, with virtually the whole world watching.
The movie “Race” begins much more quietly, though, as
Jesse is a high school kid who’s earned a track scholarship to
Ohio State, at a time (1933) in America where blacks were still
openly discriminated against. Jesse
(Stephan James) had to not only beat the competition in the
intercollegiate meets, he had to steel himself against the ugly
racism in his own athletic department, from students and coaches
There was one coach, however, who was always on his side:
Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis).
He was an athlete himself, who’d blown his own chance at
the Olympics by stupidly piloting a small aircraft and then crashing
it, right before the Trials. He’d
also just gotten a divorce (not exactly a usual occurrence in that
era, either), and seemed to be developing a drinking problem, as
well. But all this left
Larry Snyder with a burning desire to help Jesse Owens achieve what
he did not, and a single-minded determination to make sure Jesse
didn’t blow his chance. The personal bond between athlete and
coach was an important part of Jesse’s development as a
Jesse, for his part, was not entirely virtuous---not only did
he have a girlfriend back home, with their daughter; he openly took
up with another woman while on the road at collegiate track meets.
But eventually he realized his error, and begged Ruth (Shanice
Banton) to take him back, and that emotional stability apparently
helped Jesse, as well. It’s
a stirring tale, well-told, and in light of the recent ugly racism
evident in Europe connected with immigration, a timely one, as well.