Jesse Owens biopic is as much about historic races as it is about hideous racism.
When the teaching and learning of Black History commences, focus is often directed to a happening, the people behind it and their altruistic motive. Discussed rarely is the participants’ age and limited is the exploration of their humanity and how their personhood was diminished as they, burdened by white supremacy, achieved the feat which earned them a placement in the history books.
How did Mr. John Lewis, now a Congressman but a student when he participated in a famous march for voting rights, understand and project masculinity while continuously being emasculated and denied dignity? From whom did Ms. Harriet Tubman confide in when she felt weary during the many travels on the Underground Railroad? And how often, if ever, did the most militant of activists appear vulnerable in front of their colleagues?
It’s not that these questions had no answers but the inquiries seemed of little consequence to the casual observers of history. History is usually regulated to who, what, when, where, why and how, while the deeper dives into both the facts and the abstract are reserved to niche coverage, convenings, and discussions.
‘Race,’ the first feature biopic of Mr. Jesse Owens, a young black who won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, finds itself nestled between the two aforementioned categories: it focuses only on a particular moment in history, not Mr. Owens’ full life, and does a good job of showcasing the star-athlete’s human emotions – like lust, love, fear and frustration – but stops short of exploring how the enormous pressure mounted on him – for example the NAACP requesting he boycotts the Olympics to protest Chancellor Hitler’s treatment of the Jews and Blacks – impacted his personhood and mental health, given that he was in his early 20’s and hadn’t experienced much life outside of Ohio.
Of course, if the movie was to be more in-depth, the length of it would extend, and the run time of is already more than two hours. Luckily, the film doesn’t drag on; instead it’s quite active and engaging.
You’ll smile at how the character of Mr. Owens – played by Mr. Stephan James, who portrayed Mr. Lewis in Selma – re-courts his love interest after almost losing her due to his infidelity which made headlines; you’ll cheer as he breaks record after record; you’ll be heartened by the friendship he forms with his coach – played by Mr. Jason Sudeikis, who for nearly 10 years was on-air talent at Saturday Night Live – and you’ll frown at the inevitable bigotry he faces, including Chancellor Hitler refusing to be photographed with him after the games, and him being forced to enter through the service entrance of a hotel for a dinner thrown in his honor.
As one would expect, the biopic, which opens nationwide tomorrow and which was written by Mr. Joe Shrapnel and Ms. Anna Waterhouse, is as much about the historic races as it is about hideous racism. And though it’s opening during Black History Month and telling the story of a black man, ‘Race’ is a tale of American achievement, a tale every American should aim to engage. Mr. Owens’ profile, and that of people like him, may seem to only appear in the mainstream during Black History Month, but their achievements, more so what their achievements did for the country’s image and narrative, makes the following statement a definitive fact: black history is American history.
CLICK HERE to listen to ‘Why the Black Vote Matters,’ a podcast from The Dr. Vibe Show featuring a panel of black male thought-leaders, including the co-founder of the ‘Vote or Die’ movement.
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