Race and how sports movies can illustrate wider historical contexts

03 Jun 2016 BY Elinor Walpole in Film Features

8 mins

Race tells the story of the build-up to one of the greatest sporting achievements of all time - African American sprinter Jesse Owens' incredible four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games, as he became the most successful performer of any athlete in the competition. Remarkably, the story of the many barriers Jesse had to overcome before his game-changing success is only now - nearly 80 years after the event - getting its first big-screen tribute.

Jesse Owens was the first in his family to go to university, where he became an outstanding athlete, all the while working a night job to pay his tuition fees. At the time, segregation was rife in the United States, and Black men like Jesse were not eligible for the scholarships that other athletes of his calibre would have received. Despite his gruelling schedule, Owens' talent earned him a steady path to victory in every competition he entered - even when up against prejudiced judges that were inclined to downplay his talent. 

With Owens' successes putting him in a position to enter the most prestigious competition of them all - as well as his first chance to compete away from American soil - came great controversy, which is explored in depth in the film. The 1936 Olympic Games were held in Germany, where the Nazi party had come to power, and reports had begun to emerge about the party's systematic harassment of Jews, Gypsies and Black people. The Nazi party was keen to showcase what their country represented - and these ideals rankled people the world over, sparking protests in America. The US Olympic committee was forced to debate whether to risk validating the Nazi's vision by attending the Games, or whether to boycott them due to the human rights issues.

Major sporting events always shine a light on a country's practices, both positive and negative, and can be a powerful publicity tactic, exemplified in 1974 when Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) took the spotlight with the famous 'Rumble in the Jungle' boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, immortalised in the documentary When We Were Kings.

In the case of 1936, the Nazis aimed to capture their moment in the international spotlight on celluloid, in order to add to their collection of propaganda. Their notorious films were produced to win support by appealing to nationalistic pride, and stirring up anti-Semitic hatred, epitomised in Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl was also commissioned to film what was supposed to be the Aryan race's sporting success, with the ambitious and technically innovative Olympia. However, Owens' achievements upended the narrative of racial supremacy that the Nazis wanted to broadcast, and in Race this is presented as a dilemma for Riefenstahl, who is shown being as captivated as the crowds by the beauty and dynamism of Owens' performances. Despite the undermining effect on Nazi messaging, and the disapproval of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, Riefenstahl simply could not resist the cinematic appeal of Owens. 

With Owens positioned to bring glory to the US, people looked to him to set an example, especially as a Black man who had captured the public imagination and was on his way to becoming an icon. However, it was not a simple choice - some were keen for him to abstain, in order to make a statement about the civil rights situation back in the US, and to show solidarity with the oppressed German people that did not align with the Nazi ideology. Others, meanwhile, did wish for him to compete in order to seize an opportunity to publicly disprove the Nazi's racist theories.

Despite his pride in his success, Owens was not wholly comfortable with the figurehead status that was thrust upon him, and felt conflicted about the responsibility of making such a significant public decision. Another athlete put in a difficult position, both personally and politically, was Jackie Robinson, the first Black baseball player to break into the exclusively all-white major leagues. His rise is charted in the film 42, and his success marked a significant turning point in gaining popular recognition for the civil rights movement in the US. Sporting events continue to provoke debate and scrutiny around the ethics of their host nations, and whether their domestic policies live up to ideals such as the Olympic Values that it's their responsibility to uphold.

While sporting events provide this forum to reflect on what the participating countries or teams represent, they can also be a powerful uniting force, and during Owens' reception in Berlin he was welcomed as a hero by multitudes of white German fans. Films such as Seabiscuit and Senna, and fan-culture comedy Offside (even while it maintains a critical angle) show how an individual's or national team's sporting achievement can provide a pinnacle of hope for people during troubled times, and bring a nation together with their success. In Invictus, post-apartheid South Africa is united by the combined efforts of president Nelson Mandela and Springboks coach Francois Pienaar to overcome historic attitudes and provide a new meaning for their national team. 

Owens was dedicated to sport, which is shown in Race to elevate him above everyday concerns. However, his dedication also required an additional level of self-sacrifice due to the challenges of segregation and the pressures of being a role model. The level of personal dedication required to compete at international level is immense, and comparative scenes of single-minded training are seen in Personal Best, a documentary about sprinters preparing for the 2012 Olympics. The classic Olympic film Chariots of Fire also addresses this by following two sprinters from very different backgrounds competing in the 1924 Olympics; while running provides an escape for troubled young man Colin in British kitchen-sink drama The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

Race invites audiences to consider how history is made and recorded, providing an angle for ethical debate by positioning at its centre the iconic yet controversial footage of Jesse that was captured by a proponent of a racist regime that was guilty of terrible crimes against humanity. Alongside the reflections on the injustices experienced by Jesse Owens and other athletes in their home countries and abroad, this film is inspirational in honouring the struggle of a trailblazer whose successes went far beyond personal achievement to set in motion the path towards civil rights.

We cannot guarantee that all films discussed in this article are covered by the PVSL and are part of our catalogue, but where possible we aim to ensure that this is the case.

Elinor Walpole, Film Programmer

Elinor Walpole , Film Programmer

Elinor has a BA in English Literature from the University of Warwick. She has worked as Education and Community Officer for Picturehouse Cinemas, and as Outreach Coordinator for Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

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