In 1936, a black man who grew up picking cotton in the Jim Crow South went to Berlin and was heralded as an American hero for crashing Adolf Hitler’s Nazi propaganda party. Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the ’36 Summer Olympic Games, the last peaceful gathering of the world’s young men and women before World War II.
His legendary feats, and the politics that swirled around them, are the subject of Race, the new drama starring Stephan James (Selma) as the soft-spoken Owens. Jason Sudeikis plays Larry Snyder, the no-nonsense track and field coach at Ohio State who helped Owens realize his potential. (Or, put another way, Owens and his teammates helped turn Snyder into a great coach with their record-breaking performances.) Owens’ magnificence and grace as an athlete was nonpareil in his time — in 1935, he set three world records and tied another in 45 minutes during the Big 10 championships — but it is his story off the track, as an African-American confronting injustice at home and abroad that still resonates 80 years later.
In this exclusive scene (above) from the film, which opens Feb. 19, Owens is welcomed to Ohio State by Snyder, who already recognizes the brilliance of his new pupil but wonders if he will have the discipline to become truly great. The Olympics are just two years away, and Snyder challenges him to aim for gold.
Owens nearly didn’t make it to Berlin to make history. The United States Olympic Committee considered boycotting the Berlin Games in protest of the Nazi government’s treatment of Jewish citizens and other minorities, and director Stephen Hopkins’ film examines the compromised role that American executive Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) played in securing America’s participation — which ultimately came with a price. Josef Goebbles (Barnaby Metschurat) will do anything to give Hitler the propaganda victory he craves, but it’s Leni Riefenstahl’s (Clarice van Houten) epic documentary of the Berlin Games (Olympia) that was intended to document German glory that helped immortalize Owens’ achievements for all time.