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 alike.

            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 world-class athlete.

            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.

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  When have you witnessed racial discrimination?

2)                  What is the single greatest athletic performance you’ve ever seen?

3)                  Could Hitler have been stopped before plunging the world into war?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association