REVISITING 1936

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

On the poster of `Race,’ actor Stephen James looks you straight in the eye.

A front shot of the signature Jesse Owens pose, it is an expression of absolute focus; the edge of his palm in line with his nose, splitting his face and creased forehead into two halves. Each half is defined by a raised eyebrow with an eye below preying on a distant object – a finish line. The palm, the creased forehead, the eyebrows, the eyes – they emphasise his concentration to the expense of all else.

What that poster conveys is the strength of Stephen Hopkins’s film. It tells an uncluttered, linear story that is almost a documentary on Jesse Owens. Denied melodrama, the film lets sport and its main protagonist, be noticed. Despite the light physical build of the classical athlete, his position in script is secure. The casting is balanced. The acting is right sized; a powerful actor like Jeremy Irons shines in his role but doesn’t squeeze others out. Amid the simmering race relations in the US of that time, the racist views of the Nazis and the growing danger in Nazism, sport shines through. There is the relation between Coach Larry Snyder and Owens. But I remember more other instances. There is a dialogue in the film, one that speaks the perspective of sport: when you are running there is no black and white; there is only fast and slow. In age of propaganda, we see the equation between Joseph Goebbels and filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl. When Goebbels uses a construction project to bait builder and sports official Avery Brundage, in Berlin to evaluate whether American participation is possible in a Nazi run-Olympics, we see the colour of money (a 1999 article on the Berlin Olympics, in The New York Times, mentions a 1938 letter from Germany in the University of Illinois archives, indicating acceptance of the bid by Brundage’s construction firm to help build the German Embassy in Washington). There is the amazement America’s black athletes have in discovering no separate quarters for them at Berlin’s Olympic village. Then there is that conversation between Owens and Carl “ Luz’’ Long, the German long jumper Owens beat to second position. Long reveals his disapproval of racism under the autocratic Nazis and his belief that the democratic US system is better causing Owens to say reflectively that he isn’t sure. The scene sums up the predicament of individual in collective, then and now. Race is a good film. See it.

However, a linear narrative denies as much as it shows. Owens is an athlete at times of racial discrimination in the US. Across the Atlantic, Germany consumed by notions of racial supremacy, views the 1936 Olympic Games awarded to Berlin, as an opportunity to showcase country under Hitler. America contemplates boycotting the Berlin Olympics to display its aversion for the Nazis’ racist policies and anti-Semitism even as transport buses on its own roads kept separate seats for African American people. Amid this, in 1933 and 1935 (as per the Internet) , Owens equals the world record in the 100 yard dash, becoming one of the top sprinters on the planet. Whether he should participate in the Olympics or not – easily answered in his athlete’s mind – becomes a vexing question for the African-American community. He is confused. It is a web of charged histories with athlete entangled. The film doesn’t delve deep into these trends shaping Owens’s times, even his life. Although eventual outcome is a film I found more watchable than what Bollywood served up on India’s best known sprinter, it must be said that in as much as the Indian film traded sport for the muscular nationalism loved by prevailing market, Hollywood embraced sport and breezed over history, including personal history. You suspect a more creative script may have accommodated those times better. I wouldn’t mind it even if the resultant film was called `1936.’ As sport becomes event management and event becomes the hunting ground of those seeking power, sport isn’t sure anymore what happened to it. That perennial question of individual in collective isn’t just a social, political or business question; it is a question in sport too, a question of what you lose in sport when you want sport on grand scale or want sport to prove a point.

Race ends showing Owens and his wife taking the freight elevator to attend a reception in his honour because coloured people aren’t allowed entry via the hotel’s main entrance. This is in the US, soon after he won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. There is no hint, except as epilogue in text, of what followed. Owens returned to America from Berlin with no congratulatory message from the President of his own country. His sporting career ended early. Wanting to capitalize on his post-Berlin fame, he took up some commercial offers as a consequence of which, officials withdrew his `amateur’ status.  Denied participation in amateur events and unable to sustain his reputation, his commercial offers dried up. This forced him to run for spectacle, including racing against horses. He ran a dry cleaning business and even worked as a gas station attendant. He eventually filed for bankruptcy. In 1966 he was prosecuted for tax evasion. It was after this, that recognition and help came.

When you read this on Wikipedia, you realize how important it is for a biographical film to pick up those portions of a person’s life, which tell as much of his story as possible. In Owens case it is tough to do so for he packed much into his life, not to mention, his times was equally packed with social issues and political developments. How do you make a script of it all? Problem is – the moment one heard of a film on Owens, one thought of `Ray.’ The film on the singer-musician progressively built his character. You understood from where each brick came. The Owens of Race appeared parachuted into the movie, inhabiting it for a while and then disappearing with a scene, which is the last in the film but we know is the beginning of a tough phase for the athlete. If a man’s life is a reel of film, then Race with its linear narrative, has snipped and showcased the middle.

Owens merits a Ray.

That is still awaited.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

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