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'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.


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)
"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.


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