A few weeks ago I went to see the film Race about Jesse Owens. I went on a Thursday because it was the last night it was showing in an Edwards Theater in Nampa and I wanted to see it on the big screen. I couldn’t believe it had such a short life in the theater but I am very naive sometimes–I assume that because a film tells an important story, everyone will want to see it. (For those of you near Nampa, it is now in the second-run theaters).
Like many of you I was primed for this movie because of books written during the past decade. First came Laura Hillenbrand’s excellent 2010 book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Much of the story is about Louis Zamperini’s disappearance in the Pacific Ocean and his time as a POW but the story begins with his time as a runner, including his place on the 1936 USA Track and Field Olympic Team. The film was later made into a film, which I have not yet seen.
Next came Daniel James Brown’s 2013 The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I learned more about the sport of crew than I ever wanted to but I read every single page because of Brown’s writing. The book is about the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew so this book may have been more popular out here in the Pacific and Inland Northwest. I think Hillenbrand mentioned German film maker Leni Riefenstahl but it wasn’t until I read Boys in the Boat that my interest in this woman and her work was secured. Brown also added another fun book to the growing cannon of narrative history books.
This brings us to Race, about Owens’ time at Ohio State and at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The scenes on the track and in the long jump sand were good but the film’s greatest strength was the chemistry between Stephen James, who plays Owens, and Jason Sudeikis, who plays Larry Snyder, the Ohio State coach who buys his own ticket to Europe so Jesse has both consistent coaching and an ally in Berlin. I never grew tired of watching Snyder play with his hat or stand up for Jesse, whether in the Ohio State locker room or at an Olympic venue. There was a moment after seeing the film when I thought to myself, “Why should you have expected anything else from Snyder?” But the fact is that he was a unique man in his time and place. The film also has an excellent supporting cast, including Jeremy Irons and William Hurt.
The surprise of the film was the amount of time given to Leni Riefendtahl, played by Carice van Houten. I’m outraged by the propaganda she produced for Hitler but she was a remarkable woman for her time–confident, dedicated to her art, able to articulate what she was doing and, above all, a visionary film maker, evident more than ever when German long jumper Carl ‘Luz’ Long invites Jesse to run around the track with him in victory, silver and gold medalists respectively. She knows this is an epic moment and forces her camera man to keep recording, against his protest that this scene goes against everything Hitler is trying to accomplish. And so, I decided I had to watch at least some of her final product, Olympia.
Thank you Garden City Library and inter-library loan for helping. I don’t think you need to watch Olympia to appreciate the other stories I’ve written about here. However, her opening sequence of the athletic, strong, beautiful, muscular WHITE men followed by shots of Owens winning four gold medals made it that much more clear why he was such a threat to Hitler.
I believe in the power of good films followed by conversations. I think it is more important than ever to study history, both the stories of individuals and the overarching narratives. Fortunately Hillenbrand, Brown and director Stephen Hopkins did not just open up an important and interesting moment in history, they are all great story tellers.