Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Masculinity Monday: 'Race' and the Burden of Being a Role Model

[Sorry this is slightly belated - I need to stop assuming that I'll have time to "just write it in the morning" because I never ever do.]

I am not a fast runner. Seriously, even in my athletic days of being on the soccer team, I was always one of the slower kids whose skill lay in stamina, not speed. And I'm not much of a role model - the only people who might have ever looked up to me were toddlers who thought I was amazing because I knew how to shuffle a deck of cards. Also I am definitely not a black man living in Ohio during the Great Depression. So on the surface, there's not a lot I have in common with Jesse Owens in Race.

This does not, however, mean that I didn't intensely emotionally identify with Owens and connect to his story. So before we really get started here, I want to remind you all that "relatability" is crap - a well written story is relatable because the people in it are human. We don't need them to be white middle class men in order to get that.

With this out of the way, I can tell you comfortably that Race is a fantastic movie. Incisive, honest, and beautifully shot, it's a film that makes no apologies for its focus on 1930s race relations, and couches the relatively well known story of Jesse Owens and his four gold medals in the context of his life as a black man in Jim Crow America. It's really good and well worth seeing.

But perhaps what stood out to me the most about the film was an aspect I'd never really considered before: the weight and terrifying burden of being a role model like Jesse Owens really was. How the stress of having to stand in for an entire people wore on him and how people made demands of his life that they would never have made if he were not so gifted. In other words, this movie, for all that it is a period piece about people long dead, has a lot to say about celebrity culture, tokenism, and what it means to be a role model in today's society.

Before we get to that, though, a quick overview of the film itself:

Jesse Owens (Stephan James) is already a well known and very talented runner by the time the movie starts. He's made a splash and broken some records in Chicago, but it's time for him to go off and show what he's really made of, running for Ohio State University under the tutelage of Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Jesse and his friend Dave (Eli Goree*) enter the Ohio State campus to become the best runners they can be, but Ohio State isn't necessarily ready for two black runners. Larry Snyder, on the other hand, desperate for a winning season and to keep his job, is totally on board with Jesse Owens, as long as he can run.

The central relationship of the movie, as you might have guessed, is between Owens and Snyder, as they go from being student and coach to reluctant friends to definitely best friends without even a power imbalance. But what makes this movie actually work well is how it refuses to ignore the racial disparity between them. 

When Snyder gives a speech early on about how Jesse needs to be constantly running and working so hard and practicing all the time, he demands that Jesse "have some manners" and look him in the eye. It's a memorable scene because we the audience understand that Jesse is looking away for very good reasons - a black man doesn't look a white man in the eye if he wants to stay safe. Jesse folds in on himself in Snyder's presence, a fact that completely passes by Snyder but slaps us in the face. 

And Snyder's insistence that Owens think of nothing but racing buts into Jesse's genuine need to make money to provide for his family and his young daughter, Snyder is shocked to realize that his student has more concerns than just being some college jock. As the audience, however, we are constantly in that awareness, in that consciousness of who Jesse is and where he comes from and what his responsibilities are. It's a really well made movie that somehow manages to get behind white privilege and portray the very real discrimination and difficulty Jesse Owens faces, while his white cohort remains utterly blind.

The first half of the movie or so goes about how you'd expect it to, albeit with much more nuance and racial awareness than usual. Jesse and Larry slowly become friends as Jesse proves that he's the fastest runner pretty much ever. There are a bunch of races, then his fame goes to his head a little bit and he starts cheating on his girl back home, which of course blows up in his face. Drama drama drama, all normal sports movie kind of stuff. In the background, however, the movie is also telling another story, about how the US Olympic Committee isn't sure it ought to agree to go to the 1936 Olympics because oh yeah, they're in Berlin.

For those of us who have some vague awareness of history, we already know that the United States did not, in the end, boycott the 1936 Olympics, despite being understandably worried about their presence there giving legitimacy to the Nazi regime. The Olympic Committee can't decide which is the better message, with William Hurt's character insisting they not go for moral reasons, and Jeremy Irons' character insisting that they do because this is about sports, not politics. Like I said, we know how this eventually ended, but it's fascinating to see the way the decision came about.**

The subplot finds Irons' character, Avery Brundage, going over to Berlin and seeing firsthand the Nazi violence against Jews and other "undesirables". His verdict? The Nazis need to "clean up their act", but he sees no real reason to tell them how to run their country. As a result, the Olympic Committee decides to go to the Berlin Olympics, and Brundage is given a juicy job helping design and build the new German embassy in Washington, DC. Super shady indeed.

But the question of whether or not the United States will go to Berlin is only just over when the film hits its real stride, pivoting from Jesse Owens' promising running career to his position as a public figure. See, now that the US is going to the Olympics, the question becomes whether or not Jesse, as a young African-American man, ought to go with them.

No one thinks that Jesse won't get a spot on the team if he wants it - we've just spent half a movie establishing that he's totally going to win. The question becomes whether or not he should, with everyone from the head of the NAACP to Jesse's father to Larry Snyder weighing in one way or the other. 

It boils down like this: either Jesse should bow out of the Olympics in order to show solidarity with Europe's Jewish population, or he should go to Germany expressly so that he can prove that the Nazi ideals of racial purity are complete crap. The thing is, neither position is actually wrong. They are both morally upstanding ways to go, and Jesse has a hell of a time picking between them.

I'd have to say that real skill as a filmmaker is taking an event where we all know the outcome (Jesse Owens did go to the 1936 Olympics or else there wouldn't be a movie about it) and keeping us on the edge of our seats as we wonder what will happen. So yeah, this is a very good movie. But the drama here is also very reasonable and heartfelt. Jesse Owens really doesn't know the right thing to do, and when he does eventually decide to go, he doesn't feel completely free in that decision.

At this point, for the record, the movie is really only half over. As with everything else, we already know that Owens is going to win four gold medals, but watching him do it is still somehow shocking and nerve-wracking. 

And the movie goes into all the little nuances of his time in Berlin - from finding unexpected comradery with Carl 'Luz' Long (David Cross), a German world champion, to being snubbed by Hitler himself when he refused to shake Owens hand - nuances which only heighten the drama and remind us that this isn't a movie about running, it's a movie about the complexity of racial relations in a time period we like to remember as simple and uncomplicated.

I can't really spoil the ending of this movie, since I've technically already mentioned it like four times and again it is a well known historical fact, but suffice to say that the movie really does keep you invested until the end. Still, the point of this film isn't that Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Nazi Germany and totally threw egg in the face of "Aryan perfection" - he did and that's great, but it's not the point. 

The point is the scene where Jesse and Dave realize that their rooms in Berlin are right next to the white athletes and they can eat in the same dining hall, prompting Dave to remark that the Nazis really aren't that bad - and the moment after when the Jewish athletes next to them force smiles and shrink a little in their seats.

The point of this movie is the scene at the end where Jesse and his wife aren't allowed in the main entrance of a fancy gala dinner and have to go around the back. Even though this is a dinner party thrown in Jesse's honor.

The point is the scene where Larry screams at Jesse for potentially throwing away everything they have been working on for years now and says that he doesn't care what people will say about Jesse. And Jesse yells back, "Well that's because you're white, Larry. You don't have to."

The point is the moment when the Germans insist that the US team change its roster so that no Jewish athletes compete, allowing Jesse Owens to win his fourth gold medal but erasing those athletes from history and from the event that they had trained their whole lives to win.

The point of this movie isn't all the races and the running and the four gold medals: it's the moral complexity and genuine confusion that racism causes and the very real moral conundrums that we have to face as people living in a racialized society. It takes a lot of guts to make a movie explicitly comparing Germany's actions towards the Jews with America's attitude towards black people in the 1930s, and it takes even more guts to admit you're doing it. Race is a very good movie, but it's kind of only a good movie if you know what you're getting into. 

Die hard sports movie fans will be annoyed at how much time is spent talking about morals and how little is spent on the actual athletics. People who like civil rights dramas might be annoyed by all the very technical stuff about racing. And everyone will be a little confused as to why the Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) subplot gets so much screentime. But I think we can all agree that Race does a good job telling a lot of angles on a story we all already knew, making our understanding of that moment in history, the moment when Jesse Owens showed up the Third Reich on their home turf, even more meaningful.

That's the movie, in a nutshell as small as I could bear to make it, but there's plenty more I didn't even mention. It's one hell of a complex film, and it's well worth your time. But I want to take a bit here and actually get into the part I found most fascinating, like I mentioned above: the burden of being a role model.

It's not one of the most explicit themes in the film, but the movie does make it clear by the midpoint that Jesse Owens is an icon in the black community at this point. He's a nationally known and recognized athlete. He's in the paper even when he's not running races because people know who he is and they care about him a lot. He's a celebrity, and he's black. As a result, he ends up having to stand in for the whole of the black community.

I was listening to an interview with Wyatt Cenac on the podcast Another Round the other day when he started talking about a concept I'd never really heard before: the burden of being "the only one in the room." What he meant, I slowly came to realize, was the position of being the only black person in the room. But the concept stood for all races and other marginalized groups. 

As a white middle-class woman, this was a foreign concept to me. I mean, I've been the only woman in the room before, but I am privileged enough to have never really felt like I had to represent my entire gender in that situation. 

What Cenac was getting at here, though, was the uncomfortable moment of being the only black person in the room, like in a writer's room at a television show, and having to therefore stand in for every black person. To have to be the person saying, "That's racist," or "That's offensive," and to have to be the one having to apologize for your community. Cenac says in that interview (which is phenomenal, as is everything on that podcast) that one of his goals as a creator now is to make sure that no one ever feels that, that his writers rooms are diverse enough that no one is the "only one in the room".

I thought about this when I was watching Race because it slowly dawned on me that Jesse Owens has to deal with that a lot in this movie. As the biggest name black athlete of the time, except maybe Joe Lewis, he is faced with the uncomfortable position of being the great black hope. He's got a reputation to uphold, sure, but he's also standing in for the entire black community here. He has to basically explain race to Larry Snyder, and Larry still doesn't get it. 

All Jesse wants is to be able to race and do the thing he knows he's best at. He has a line about how when he's racing it doesn't matter if he's black, all that matters is that he's fast. So it's devastating to see him dragged into this conversation about politics and moral decisions, and even more frustrating to see him not listened to when he does make his choice. I appreciate this movie for even bothering to go here, and I love that they don't ignore the issue afterwards either - Jesse Owens was an iconic hero who broke down barriers, but the movie doesn't sugarcoat it and give him a simplistically happy ending. Being a role model doesn't mean everything works out fine, and I respect them for admitting that.

Oh man. There is so much to discuss in this movie, but I also want you all to go out and see it for yourselves. Ultimately, this feels like the most nuanced examination of race and racism I've seen in years. It really allows no character, not even an obvious villain like Goebbels, to go without development and depth. It forces us away from satisfying narratives where the good guys are always morally upright and easily identifiable, into a world where everyone is just a person stumbling along in the dark trying to make the best decisions they can.

Jesse Owens in this movie isn't a perfect man, but he is a good man trying his best. It just fascinates me how the film is able to show us that and also admit that in some cases there is no good answer. I love the ambiguity of morality here, the open admission that some stuff is just messed the hell up. The United States is horrifically racist and treats Jesse Owens, a national hero, with disgust. But that doesn't make the extermination of the Jews in Nazi Europe any less appalling. The movie makes it clear that these racist acts and racist regimes can exist simultaneously - you can be morally right in one area and morally abhorrent in another.

Race is a movie that hates easy answers, and I love it for that. It's a film that refuses to end with Jesse winning a race and all smiles and nice feelings and over. It's about more than that, about race in all its varied experience, and it's a much richer movie for that, if one that's a bit harder to sell to a matinee crowd.

So go see it, okay? As much as I love The Undies***, I really don't want Race to fall under the radar and end up as a nominee next year. I want it to be fully appreciated, to be adored and critically acclaimed and a box office smash. Go see Race. It's worth it.

*There is something incredibly satisfying in seeing an actor you love get a good role in a great movie after being kicked off something not nearly as good. A comforting spitefulness, you know? Like seeing Eli Goree in a prestige film after being killed off on The 100 in the first season. Such a nice warm glow.

**Before seeing the film, I likened it in my mind to Chariots of Fire, the movie about the exact same race in the 1924 Olympics, where a pair of men, one Christian, one Jewish, competed to be the fastest man in the world. I figured that the similarity was in how both movies covered well-publicized events and therefore we already knew the ending. It turns out, however, that Race and Chariots of Fire share a lot more than just historical context - I'm pretty sure the makers of Race like Chariots of Fire just as much as I do, given the number of homages they make to it. This is not, for the record, a bad thing. It made me like this movie that much more.

***There's still time to be a voter in the 2015 Undies Awards! If you don't know what that means, then you should totally check it out here.


  1. The thing is, neither position is actually wrong. They are both morally upstanding ways to go, and Jesse has a hell of a time picking between them.

    It's not often we get dramas depicting a dilemma between two good options rather than between two bad ones.

    And the movie goes into all the little nuances of his time in Berlin ... nuances which only heighten the drama and remind us that this isn't a movie about running, it's a movie about the complexity of racial relations in a time period we like to remember as simple and uncomplicated.

    In your review of Woman in Gold, you talked about how very few movies about the Holocaust are about Jews rather than horrified Gentiles. This film isn't about the Holocaust exactly, but it is about the broader iceberg of which the Holocaust was the most horrific tip - horrific enough to tempt us to forget the rest of it was there, and part of the same substance. Point being, Jesse Owens is the *right* Gentile to use in a film about Thirties racism.

    I hadn't heard of this film until this review, but I'll certainly be on the lookout for it now.

    1. I would like more movies about the difficulty of making good choices, yes.

      And I agree - if you're going to take a non-Jewish perspective on race in the 1930s, this is hands down the way to go. It creates a much more compelling story, and it really highlights the complexity of the issue. I just kind of want to high-five the creative team on this movie.