Monday, 6 June 2016

Race (4½ Stars)

The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin are now 80 years ago. Why has it taken all this time to get round to making a film about Jesse Owens, the black athlete who put Hitler's views on Aryan supremacy to shame? I'm using the word "black" deliberately, rather than the modern polite expression "African American", because it wasn't a matter of his ethnic origins or where he lived, it was all about his skin colour.

Jesse Owens was a phenomenon. He was the youngest of 10 children born to a poor family in Cleveland, Ohio. He was the only member of his family and one of the few black children in his neighbourhood who went to college. He enrolled in Ohio State University in 1933. He felt guilty for the financial strain that this was putting on his parents. He also had to support his girlfriend and her baby daughter.

At university it seems (based on the evidence of the film) that he didn't study much. All his time was spent training as an athlete. The university's athletic coach, Larry Snyder, recognised Jesse's talent and was preparing him for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Jesse first gained national attention at a sporting event in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1935. He set three world records in 45 minutes, for the long jump, the 220 yards and the 220 yard hurdles. No other athlete has ever equalled this achievement.

This isn't just the story of Jesse Owens, it's the story of the Berlin Olympic Games. It was intended to be the biggest Olympic Games ever, as a tool of German propaganda. The games were to be filmed by Hitler's favourite director, Leni Riefenstahl, even though Josef Goebbels, the head of the German film industry, disliked her because she was a woman. Goebbels' intention was to use the film as propaganda, whereas Riefenstahl's sole intention was to make the best film ever. She opposed Goebbels when he tried to stop her filming events which Germany wasn't expected to win.

America almost boycotted the 1936 Olympic Games. In their invitation to the games the German Olympic Committee said that no countries could send athletes who were black or Jewish. America insisted on these conditions being withdrawn. America's only two Jewish athletes were runners in the 4 x 100 meter relay race. The day before the event Germany went back on its word and didn't allow them to compete. Jesse Owens was named as one of the replacements.

Including the relay race, Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympic Games, the most ever won by a single athlete until then. Hitler was shown to leave early, so that he didn't have to shake the hands of the winning athletes. However, the film also shows that racism was strong in the USA at that time. When Jesse returned to America and a celebration was held in his honour he wasn't allowed to use the main entrance; it was for whites only.

This is a stunning film with first rate performances by mostly unknown actors, including Stephan James as Jesse Owens. The only familiar face is William Hurt as Jeremiah Mahoney, the head of the American Amateur Athletic Union.

Leni Riefenstahl didn't just direct the film about the Olympic Games, she also appeared herself in idealised portrayals of Olympic athletes. This snapshot of her from the film might give an idea why Adolf Hitler liked her so much.

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