When the end credits rolled, Daniels, a 16-year-old sophomore (and sprinter) at Carver High School of Engineering and Science in North Philadelphia, was schooled. And pumped. She had learned that Owens, the sharecropper’s son who broke records as a track and field star and won four golds at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was living disproof of Adolf Hitler’s theory of Aryan racial supremacy. And that Owens demonstrated his superiority on the Fuhrer’s own turf.
“I liked the fact that Owens wasn’t intimidated by his surroundings, that he knew he could put it out on the track,” Daniels said later in a phone conversation. “The film inspired me, mostly to push myself further.”
“Race,” a Focus Features film opening wide on Friday, had a similar impact on most of the students with whom I saw it. For me, it was a well-intentioned biopic with a quiet, deeply-felt performance by Stephan James, who didn’t play Owens so much as physically inhabit him. Yet for the high schoolers, many of them sprinters at the magnet school, it was the movie equivalent of a performance-enhancing drug, only legal.
The students’ audible enthusiasm heated by several degrees my own lukewarm response.
As they studied Owens’ technique and sprinting style, I grumbled to myself about how perfunctorily the races were photographed. They saw the excitement of racing on an international stage; I saw bad CGI. They held their collective breath when Owens resists the wishes of the NAACP which asks him not to go to Berlin and dignify Hitler’s Reich; I scratched my head at the filmmakers’ choice of dignifying Leni Riefenstahl — a.k.a. Hitler’s documentarian — as a heroine of this piece.
Let Samir Thomas, 18, paint the bigger picture. “I thought I knew a lot about Jesse Owens, but the movie taught me a whole lot more about what I didn’t know,” said the college-bound senior, also a sprinter. “I didn’t know about how offensive the Jewish and the black athletes were to Hitler at the Olympics. I was on edge for most of the movie, even though I knew a lot of what was going to happen.”
Many students spoke about how “Race” hit them in both heart and solar plexus, most eloquently Myles Coston, also 16. The sophomore, a sprinter himself, stripped the movie down to its atomic weight. For him it was a story about all the literal and figurative “hurdles that Owen overcame” while being a parable of interracial cooperation and friendship.
Coston was moved by the sequence in which German athlete Luz Long, Owens’ competitor in the long jump, helped Owens qualify for the event, which resulted in the latter’s gold medal. Though that story may be apocryphal, it is true that Long and Owens did become friends.
“Race” offers many access points: It’s the story about an African-American man who had a significant role in sports and geopolitics. It’s about a man of discipline and focus who surmounted the obstacle race. And it is being released at a time of increased criticism of Hollywood’s snowblindness, the movies’ tendency to see only white experience.
Cinematically, it is a case of “print the legend” filmmaking, a misshapen screenplay and an innocuous mise-en-scene. But all of those shortcomings are offset by James’ fine performance, and Owens’ story, which outweighs the weakness of Hopkins’ execution.
In the larger context of the #BlackLivesMatter and #OscarsSoWhite critiques of representation in film, the experience of seeing “Race” with an audience of African-American youths reinforced two things for me: That there is a terrific appetite for movies about black lives. And that the best stories, like that of Owens at the Olympics, are universal.
“Race” is in theaters today.
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