I know the name Jesse Owens, and that he was a fast runner, but that’s it. I saw one trailer for this, and that’s it. I was pleased I knew little because it made the story much more engrossing for me and painted a clear picture of the reasons why this man deserved the acclaim and admiration he was initially denied thanks to that little thing called “race”.
“Race” - a two sided title; one side for the struggle of black people and prejudice surrounding them in 1930s America and Europe. On the other side, the race from start to finish that escalates from University training field to Olympic stadium. Both equally powerful and inspiring as the other.
With a wonderfully grounded performance by Stephan James as Jesse Owens, both who I knew little about, I was sold from the start. No lingering back story about how his youth was - we get the idea in the opening 10mins it’s not been easy, but Owens has the American dream to be somebody and provide for his family and will not stop until he reaches it.
I was also taken with Jason Sudeikis in a straight role, with great passion and likeability factor. Also, Jeremy Irons back on form as Avery Brundage, with an electrifying resolve and grit that makes for some great viewing when he faces off against Joseph Goebbels, and knowing what would happen 3 years later.
The presence of the Nazi party is strong here, and is very chilling as we see the persecution of the Jewish people start to become very public and also the Aryan race favoured by Chancellor Hitler. We know what is coming, unlike everyone else here, and that tension is bubbling away behind the good nature of the games and amicable behaviour by all parties.
It’s these powerful plot points that are always there during Jesse’s progression through University to reach the Olympics in Berlin. The look and sound of the film is perfect for the 1930s divide between white and coloured citizens, each with their own way of life that isn’t glossed over here. Separate seats on buses, using side entrances to enter hotels, and even being referenced to as names we don’t need to mention here.
It’s a fascinating and very well produced film that focuses on a small segment of Jesse’s life, but arguably his most triumphant. It doesn’t need to drag on for 3 hours - this is a snapshot of a life changing era for everyone involved. It’s a glimpse into a world that was on the brink of changing forever, and it still makes for harsh watching at times when you remember how much the racism divided countries - all the while we just want to cheer Jesse on as he goes from strength to strength, even with the usual ups and downs of family life.
Great performances, an uplifting story and a chilling era make for a very entertaining watch.