By Betsy Schlabach
In my “Race, Sexuality, and United States Sports History” course my students are required to analyze a sports’ history film. Numerous papers arrive on Jackie Robinson, the Miracle on Ice, All American Girls Professional Baseball League, Michigan’s Fab Five, the Black Sox Scandal, or Notre Dame Football. While drafting these papers, I always ask students to think about why the producer thought the audience needed this film at the moment of release. Why this narrative at this precise moment? Why this storyline? This is especially pertinent to the Jesse Owens’ biopic, Race, released ten days ago in theaters across the nation. Why does America need Jesse Owens’ fight against Hitler’s Germany in February 2016? Another way to approach this question is to pose the follow up inquiry: why does Owens’ story sell in 21st century America where the sports world is saturated with less-than-flattering stories of LeBron James’ seeming apolitical stance, PEDs, and sexual and domestic abuse scandals involving professional athletes?
The film’s release is certainly timely; it is the 80th anniversary of 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany and we are preparing for Rio’s Summer Olympics. It was in Berlin where Owens would make history as a civil rights icon that meant many things to many different constituencies. Today his narrative is nothing less than complex. His story is as vexing to our understandings of race, sports, and global politics as it was in the 1930s. What we owe Owens is more complexity and nuance. The film attempts to put this front and center through analyses of segregation in higher education, Owens’ relationship with his coach, multiple forms of oppressions between races and ethnicities domestically and globally, and larger conversations about the place of politics in athletic arenas. On some of these points Race hits its mark, but on others it misses.
Historian Mark Dyreson writes that since the 1930s the Jesse Owens story has been required “reading” for wrestling with the complexities of twentieth century America. If we can understand Owens—really grab ahold of the meaning of his story—then we will understand the complexities of American racism, global politics, and the multiple fronts of the emerging Civil Rights Movement. The film balances these many tensions. There are moments here of real complexity as the film tackles the lived realities of segregated life during the Great Depression. The moments of greatest complexity come into full view in a few scenes illustrating African American characters’ efforts to tackle Jim Crow racism at home and fighting fascism abroad in references to the Double V Campaign. This movement gained greater momentum during World War II, but one can see the buddings of this dual consciousness in Owens’ conflicting stance toward the Olympic boycott of the Berlin Games.
The film is weakest in its illustration of the era’s varieties of oppression: anti-Semitism and racism. In a particularly uncomfortable scene where two of the USA’s Olympic African American athletes, Owens and Metcalf, sit in the Berlin Games’ cafeteria with two Jewish American athletes. Marveling at the food and his ability to sit in a desegregated lunch room, Metcalf states, “maybe these Nazis’ have a bad reputation.” To which the Jewish American sprinters look on with disbelief and then roll their eyes. This attempt at ranking oppressions—where racial and ethnic oppression are pitted against one another, leaving the Jewish American men to rank last and the African American sprinters as the butt of a joke, results in an unsophisticated understanding of mid-twentieth century racial and ethic oppressions. Most egregious it obscures the very real racial and ethnic alliances that existed between African Americans and Jewish Americans. This omission is never wholly rectified in the film, it is only superficially remedied later in the movie after the drama between the pair escalates when American Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage replaces the Jewish American sprinters with the African Americans in the 4X100 meter relay to pacify Nazi press demands. Angered by Brundage’s move, Owens, the hero, reluctantly agrees to take the Jewish sprinters’ spot stressing, “only if they agree.” They meet him in his room and state the terms of their contract: “don’t let the Nazi’s win,” handing over the highly-coveted lead-off and anchor spots of the relay. The Americans easily win the competition solidifying their dominance, handing Owens his fourth gold medal congealing his spot in the history books for years to come.
The film’s main storyline rests on a framework of intriguing parallelism between the two main characters: Owens and his coach Larry Snyder. The two characters trade quips, repeating them to each other at poignant moments. For example, in a famous scene Owens set three world records and tied another as a sophomore at the 1935 Big Ten Conference Championships. He smashed Snyder’s OSU Track and Field point record literally replacing him—supplanting him in all ways but the color of his skin. This parallelism reaches a climactic point after Owens qualified for the Olympics and a NAACP representative visits his family home in Cleveland. The representative arrives with a letter from NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White urging him to boycott the games. White wrote, “Participation by American athletes, and especially those of our own race, which has suffered more than any from American race hatred, would, I firmly believe, do irreparable harm” (December 4, 1935). After this confrontation with the NAACP in his childhood home, Owens and his wife return to Ohio State where they find his coach and teammates listening to the “Brown Bomber,” boxer Joe Louis lose to German Max Schmeling. With Louis out of the way it is clear to Owens that he will be the black hero, the “Race Man” leading the charge in Berlin—it’s at this moment Owens confronts his coach to tell him he won’t go. This leads to a fight with Snyder. Snyder erupts telling Owens—“I don’t care about any of that.” The quote lays it all on the line breaking down the uneasy comparison and contrast between the two main characters. The quote also dangerously nudges at post-racial fraudulent colorblindness that might resonate with a 21st century audience. Snyder does not have to care about Owens’ race or him being a “Race Man” in 1930s segregated America—it is his privilege to be colorblind. Owens can’t adopt colorblindness like Snyder, Race proves that the colorblind narrative is bankrupt.
Jesse Owens returned stateside to a tickertape parade in New York City in 1936. Huge parades honored him in Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio as well. But after the tickertape was swept up, Owens had trouble converting his fame into a life long culture of celebrity. After breaking with the Amateur Athletic Union, a tour on the vaudeville circuit, and a whirlwind promotional schedule with help from a New York agent, Owens eventually tried his hand at several Cleveland based businesses with little success. In 1939, Owens filed for bankruptcy and nearly found himself in prison for tax evasion charges. He discovered that multiple groups, from Eisenhower during the Cold War to Ford, had a vested interest in using his image for political and commercial use. But Owens was careful about connecting himself to the more radical Civil Rights Movement emerging in the 1960s. The 1968 Mexico City Games illustrated these tensions. The Olympic Project for Human Rights tried to organize a boycott of the games to protest racial segregation in the US and South Africa but the athletes, like Owens in 1936, still competed. He denounced John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s Black Power Salute. Later in life Carlos said he wrote Owens a letter but never received a response. Owens’ main critique of Carlos and Smith was that they had politicized sport: “There is no place in the athletic world for politics.” I read this as a defense of his conservative politics at this moment of such radicalism. He could not see or admit to himself that he possessed his own version of athleticism-as-politics. Owens simply didn’t fit as a “Race Man” politically or as what the black athlete needed in the 1960s. Owens’ time on that track was over, the political and historical climate was ripe for an athlete like Muhammad Ali to emerge.
That none of this—Mexico City, 1968—appeared in Race is telling. It’s much too damning for the Jesse Owens we think we need, when we need quite the opposite. We don’t need the gray scale version that rests on faulty parallelism of an Owens/Snyder with a faulty colorblind racism solution. This version or portrayal of Jesse Owens’ story in #Blacklivesmatter America, where college protests are the norm, and politically heightened discussions are a daily occurrence doesn’t serve our intellectual or personal pursuits. Moreover, we owe Owens’ more complexity and more nuance. Nuance, mess, and evolution—a life deserves that. An American hero deserves that. Owens is yet to be given his due even if full exposure would throw his politics into a less-than flattering light. That fits our needs best, whatever our agendas may be, and will best prepare us for Rio 2016. We need to be prepared for whatever global political tensions may emerge on that thrilling or unbecoming Olympic horizon.
Betsy Schlabach is an Assistant Professor of History and African & African American Studies at Earlham College. She is the author of Along the Streets of Bronzeville: Black Chicago’s Literary Landscapes published by the University of Illinois Press in 2013. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
 Mark Dyreson, “Jesse Owens: Leading Man in Modern American Tales of Racial Progress and Limits,” in Out of the Shadows, ed. David K. Wiggins (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2008) p. 112.
 “Negroes Divided on Olympics Ban,” New York Times, November 26, 1967, sec. S, 12, quoted in Dyreson, 129.