OwensJesse Owens is portrayed in Race as a shining example of black excellence. For all of the social advancements in the decades since Owens came into national prominence, divisions still exist. Political, social, religious, and economic topics seem to have taken hold over the populous. Unfortunately, the resulting condition is polarization and dialog paralysis. The New York Times reports that Race, a biopic depicting the life of Jessie Owens, could possibly serve as the vaccination that cures the paralysis.

Born in 1913, James Cleveland Owens grew up in a small rural town in west-central Alabama. Few could have anticipated the lasting cultural and global impact that his life would have. Displaying his athletic prowess at the collegiate level, it was a forgone conclusion that Olympic games could potentially turn into a moment that would rival the victory over Max Schmeling by the “Brown Bomber” Joe Lewis.

As the 1936 Berlin games approached, Adolph Hitler prepared to showcase his Nazi ideology as well as his core belief that the Germanic bloodline is that of a superior Aryan race. The antithesis of Nazism would come in the form of a herculean performance of a 21-year-old African-American man. The New York Times describes the film Race as a powerful example of excellence that lives in the annals of history.

Etched in the United States Track and Field Record Book, Owens was victorious in all four events that he entered, equalling the world 100-meter dash record at 10.3 seconds, and establishing Olympic records in the 200-meter dash (20.7 seconds) and the broad jump (26′ 5 1/4″). His Olympics culminated by running the lead leg in what would result in a world record setting 400-meter relay of 39.8 seconds.

Jessie Owens portrayed in Race as a shining example of black excellence. Owens’ athletic performance exuded courage, pride, and patriotism in the face of those who would like nothing more than to demean an entire race of people. Reviewing the film Race, Seattlepi is critical of what they describe as a Cliff Notes rendition of a significant period in American history. Further criticism was directed towards the film’s lack of depth regarding many inter-character relationships, most specifically between Owens and German Olympian Carl Long.

Seattlepi continued to be critical of the lack of depth that the film gives to the relationship between Owens and his collegiate coach. The tension between the two men and the evolution of the respect that they gain for each other receives cursory treatment. Lastly, the film is recognized for the depiction of the racism that Owens is forced to endure at the hands of his teammates as well as students on the college campus.

Portraying the icon track star in the film is Stephan James. In an interview with Washington Top News, James explains that more is know about Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali than is known about Owens. In preparation for the role, James examined the complexities of both the man as well as the world that he lived. Where most know of his athletic accomplishments, few know that he returning home as an Olympic champion did very little to alter how society viewed him. James explains that it was important that his portrayal did not minimize Owens’ shortcomings, nor Americas reticence to celebrate his triumphs.

Jessie Owens portrayed in Race as a shining example of black excellence. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports that the title Race embodies the central themes of the film. The race that Owens had to win, the racism that he faced at home, and then defeating the Nazi’s master-race on their own soil. They go on to describe Owens as the right athlete at the right time in history. His intestinal fortitude was only matched by his ability to exist in pre-civil rights America.

By Garrett Sayers
Edited by Cathy Milne


United States Track and Field Organization: Official Track and Field Olympic Records
Seattlepi: Review: Flawed Jesse Owens Biopic ‘Race’, a Timely Tribute
Washington Top News: ‘Race’ a Fitting Tribute to Jesse Owens, An Athlete Ahead of His Time
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser: ‘Race’ is a well-made biopic following Jesse Owens
Image Courtesy of Shawn Carpenter’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License