PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Reviews

'Race', Jesse Owens, and the Fictions of History

With its nods to Leni Riefenstahl's filmmaking, Race, at least, reminds you that history is not static, but formed by storytelling.


Race

Director: Stephen Hopkins
Cast: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, Carice van Houten, Shanice Banton, William Hurt, Eli Goree, Tony Curran, David Kross, Barnaby Metschurat, Amanda Crew, Jonathan Higgins
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Focus Features
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-02-19 (General release)
Website
Trailer
"The final 'second' -- the longest slice of time in the world for an athlete -- is that last half of the race, when you really bear down and see what you're made of. It seems to take an eternity, yet is all over before you can think what's happening."

-- Jesse Owens, Jesse Owens: Champion Athlete (Tony Gentry 2005)

Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) wants 45 cameras. No, says, Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), her boss and the Reich Minister of Propaganda in 1936. He decides who needs what, because, says Goebbels, "This is my Olympics." The artist has her answer at the ready: "And this is my film. Without it, your Olympics will be forgotten in one year."

So goes history in Race, the new Jesse Owens biopic. Riefenstahl wins this argument, gets her cameras, and makes the film Olympia, at once a formally innovative documentary of the Berlin Summer Games and alarming Nazi propaganda. We have this film to thank for incredible footage of Owens during the Games, as he wins four Gold Medals, speeding past other runners as if he's in another dimension.

Race reenacts some of these moments, and even goes so far as to reenact a reenactment, when, after Owens (Stephan James) wins long jump over the German superstar Luz Long (David Kross), Riefenstahl stands in a pit with her camera operator in order to shoot Owens as he jumps over them. Jesse looks at her and wonders whether this is cheating, but the filmmaker insists on the rightness of the greater objective, that telling the story in a dramatic fashion makes it more memorable, more effective, more historic.

Again, Riefenstahl speaks a complicated truth, one that shapes Race's own storytelling. If this particular scene of this particular reenactment isn’t precisely true, it draws attention to what movies do, whether they're recording, reshaping or flat-out inventing history. Even as Race reveals such fictions, it also generates its own. Just so, it has less in common with Laurens Grant's valuable documentary Jesse Owens than with other recent biopics, like Get On Up or 42, in that they're recovering and reimagining histories in what might be termed a redemptive project, one that does not redeem filmic subjects so much as it redeems viewers.

You can learn things from Race. For instance, that Owens' mom cut a fibrous bump out of his chest when he was five years old and he picked cotton as a child. On screen, Owens -- consistently charismatic and thoughtful -- has an obviously bad-idea affair while he's engaged to his eventual wife Ruth (Shanice Banton) and becomes involved in rather schematic ups and downs in the relationship with his Ohio State coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudekis). These bits of information are arranged within a familiar celebratory and regrettably reductive arc, one that helps you feel okay about this sanitized story as well as the history it insistently forgets. You know what you see, and you see what's familiar.

This story includes some usual suspects, from a grim little Hitler (Adrian Zwicker) to a shady Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), then president of the American Olympic Association, and a morally outraged president of the Amateur Athletic Union, Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), who resigns when the AOA votes not to boycott the Games, despite "some pretty ugly reports out of Berlin".

It also features awkward cutting between Owens facing unabashed racist abuse from OSU football team members and Brundage instructing Goebbels on the necessity of hiding anti-Semitic violence in Berlin, between Riefenstahl's battles with Goebbels and glimpses of Jewish children being dragged into trucks, between Snyder's insisting on Jesse's individual mandate to compete and the NAACP's entreaty that he refuse to attend, a big-stage gesture representing populations oppressed in the US as well as in Germany. Instructive as these moments may be, they're organized here to seem to be a forward march of history, where causes and effects appear in order.

It's not a biopic's job to be accurate, no matter this one's promotional effort to claim that it is. It's possible, however, for a film about history to represent the complications of doing so, to raise questions about what's visible and what's left out, to invite you to rethink assumptions, your own and those made by any film. Race, at least, reminds you that history is not static, but formed by storytelling.

4

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.