June 24, 2019

‘Race’ Shows how Jesse Owens ran circles around Nazi ideology

Stephen Hopkins’ biopic “Race” tells the story of the great African-American athlete Jesse Owens, the grandson of a slave, who broke world records in track and field before going on to win four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, much to the chagrin of Adolf Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels.

“Owens ruined the Nazis’ propaganda scheme,” the British director said, almost gleefully, during a recent interview at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills.

Goebbels had convinced Hitler to host the games in order to showcase Aryan mental and physical superiority on the playing field. He had utilized new technologies, from portable cameras to worldwide radio, to blast across the globe what he assumed would be German victories. And he had commissioned the Nazis’ favorite cinematic propagandist, Leni Riefenstahl, to immortalize the games in what would become her films “Olympia 1 — Festival of Nations” and “Olympia 2 — Festival of Beauty.”

Enter Owens, played in the film by Stephan James (“Selma”), who thwarted Goebbels’ ambitions by winning gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, the long jump and the 4 x 100 meter relay. 

“Owens actually became the first-ever international superstar, because the Nazis accidentally helped that to happen,” Hopkins said. “They failed miserably and they blew it, because 1936 became known as the Jesse Owens Olympics, not the Nazi Olympics.

“Through it all, the stakes for Owens were very high, and that’s why I wanted to make this film.” 

In the movie, as in real life, Owens travels to Germany even after the NAACP urges him to boycott the games because of the Reich’s anti-Semitic and racist policies. After much soul searching, he decides to attend, in part to undermine the Nazis’ Aryan ideology. “He knew that they perceived Blacks as subhuman … just as jungle animals,” Hopkins said. “But what he was most terrified of was losing and proving them right.”

While “Race” is about the African-American experience, Hopkins said, “it is also about anti-Semitism and racism in general.” 

Early on, the movie delves into how the United States Olympic Committee debated boycotting the games because of Germany’s mistreatment of its Jewish, Roma and other minority populations. Committee member Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) is sent to Berlin to negotiate with Goebbels about allowing Jewish and Black athletes to compete in the games.  

While in Berlin, Brundage witnesses Jews being thrown onto trucks, as well as signs reading “Germany defend yourself; don’t buy from Jews.” When Brundage confronts Goebbels, the propaganda minister advises him that he shouldn’t concern himself with the Jews, because “they are on their way out.” But Goebbels eventually agrees to allow the minority athletes to participate as well as to tone down Nazi racist rhetoric, if only temporarily, because he realizes the games won’t attract international attention should the Americans decline to participate.

Yet Goebbels also cleverly persuades Brundage to accept a lucrative deal — constructing the German embassy in Washington, D.C. — and then uses that perk to blackmail Brundage during the Olympics. He threatens to reveal Brundage’s conflict of interest unless Brundage prevents two Jewish-American runners, Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman, from participating in the games. Brundage agrees. “He’s a real baddie,” Hopkins said.

The Jewish athletes are furious when they are promptly pulled from the 4 x 100 relay; in a previous scene, they’d been shown taunting German guards by thrusting their Star of David necklaces in the Nazis’ faces, 

Owens initially refuses to participate in the 4 x 100 race in solidarity with his Jewish colleagues, but he changes his mind when Stoller and Glickman urge him to run and “stick it up Hitler’s a–.”

Hopkins said he read a lot about Goebbels in order to capture him accurately as a character in the film. “I wanted him to seem like a nasty little executive from a big corporation, which is what he was,” the director said.

When Hitler leaves the Olympic Stadium rather than shake Owens’ hand, Goebbels remarks, in German, “Do you really think [the Fuhrer] would allow himself to be photographed with that?” — a quote Hopkins said is taken from real life. 

The film’s rather sympathetic depiction of Riefenstahl may prove controversial in some quarters; she’s widely viewed as a Nazi sympathizer and apologist for her films, including “Triumph of the Will” and the “Olympia” movies. 

Hopkins, for his part, said that Riefenstahl “was an artist born in a particular time and place. Had she been born in America, she would’ve done something else. 

“I do think she turned a blind eye to Hitler’s [genocide], like many Germans of her generation,” he said. “But she made Jesse Owens the hero of ‘Olympia,’ even though Goebbels at first made her take him out of the film.” 

Did Hopkins, who is white, have trepidations about directing a drama about an African-American icon, especially at a time when controversy about the lack of diversity in Hollywood is a hot topic? 

“I did,” he admitted. “But I didn’t want it to feel like a movie about a Black cultural icon made by a white guy.” 

Yet even though the film’s screenwriters, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, are also white and British, Hopkins insisted “there was a lot of African-American involvement in the film” — from some of the leading actors to the late Owens’ wife and family, who have supported the movie and given it their blessing.

“And I feel like whomever is best for a job should do it,” he added.

“Race” opens in theaters in Los Angeles on Feb. 19.