Over the weekend, I went to see Race which tells the triumphs and travails of Jesse Owens up to and during the 1936 Munich Olympics.
The movie was OK. Stephan James does a fine job as Owens and Jason Sudeikis does a nice dramatic turn as Owens’ coach, Larry Snyder. However, I think Carice Van Houten’s portrayal of Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl was quite sanitized.
Reviews for Race have been decidedly mixed. “Apart from a few big moments, it’s as cheap and false as a 1970s TV flick,” wrote Stephen Whitty in the New York Daily News.
In this particular case, Whitty is doing an injustice to TV flicks because it was a TV movie that did far more justice to the story of Jesse Owens. If you want to see a more comprehensive account of Owens’ life then watch The Jesse Owens Story, a 1984 TV movie starring character actor Dorian Harewood (best known for his portrayal of Simon Haley in the 1979 ABC mini-series Roots: The Next Generation) in the title role. It covers not only his triumph in Munich, but his struggles back in America following the Olympics including with the IRS. Although I have not seen the TV movie since its release, a couple of things remain with me.
The first regards Mack Robinson, the man who finished second to Owens in the 200 meter sprint. While Robinson’s name is mentioned during the 200 m race, he is not otherwise depicted in Race. This is a shame because it was the toughest of Owens’ four gold medals, as he won by only four-tenths of a second over Robinson whose 21.1 seconds also broke an Olympic record but earned him little glory beyond a silver medal. Robinson would spend years toiling as a street sweeper in Pasadena, California. But it would not be the last America heard of the Robinson family. Mack had a younger brother who also excelled in track and field as well as football, basketball, and baseball. His name was Jackie Robinson. Needless to say, The Jesse Owens Story does not omit the elder Robinson’s achievement and his struggles.
The second concerns the 1936 presidential election. At the new movie’s conclusion, it is indicated that the White House did not acknowledge Owens’ achievements. It did not specify that President was none other than Democratic Party icon Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In American politics, blacks and the Democratic Party are thought of as one and the same. Yet 80 years ago, FDR had no more desire to shake Jesse Owens’ hand than Adolf Hitler. The New Deal would not have to come to pass without support in the Deep South. FDR would have no doubt put that support at risk if it became known he had shaken hands with a black man, even one as accomplished as Owens. This was not the case with Alf Landon, FDR’s Republican opponent during the 1936 presidential election. The Kansas Governor shook hands with Owens, who would end up becoming Landon’s most visible public surrogate. Although Owens’ reasons for supporting Landon were not entirely altruistic, he was proud of his support for Landon. It was expressed this way in The Jesse Owens Story in a conversation with probation officer Lew Gilbert (portrayed by fellow Roots alumnus Georg Stanford Brown):
Gilbert: What is the straight story behind that money, Mr. Owens?
Owens: You want the truth? I was paid $10,000 to support Alfred M. Landon’s campaign against Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Gilbert: Were you ashamed of that?
Owens: Some people thought I should be, but I wasn’t. Celebrities endorse cigarettes, banks, automobiles. Why was it wrong for me to endorse a Republican? Besides, it wasn’t just for the money. I believed Landon would be better for the Black man.
Gilbert: What made you think so?
Owens: Adolf Hitler made my name a household word when he wouldn’t shake hands with me. President Roosevelt didn’t shake hands with me, either. Governor Landon did.
Despite Owens’ best efforts, FDR would get 71% of the African-American vote in 1936. Landon proved to be about as effective a campaigner as Jim Gilmore and ended on the wrong end of the worst landslide in American presidential history, losing 46 of 48 states that November including Kansas. He would win in only Maine and Vermont. This would be the same Vermont that is now home to America’s favorite socialist, Bernie Sanders. Landon would earn a measly 8 electoral votes compared to 532 for FDR.
Owens might not have been able to help Landon win a gold, but Landon was golden for shaking Owens’ hand when he had nothing to gain by extending it.
This part of Jesse Owens’ story surely deserves to be shared for generations to come.