Friday, February 26, 2016

Good but imperfect Race

I saw the Jesse Owens film on the weekend and felt somewhat conflicted about it. It was very moving, and I liked the family drama and sports story. The depression-era setting, along with segregation on buses and such, seemed detailed and realistic. I also liked the conflict when Jesse was pressured by the NAACP to not go to the Olympics. He struggled with his feelings for a while, argued with his coach, and even discussed it with a rival athlete who got injured and would never get to go. We got to see a lot of different opinions on the topic, though Jesse's final decision doesn't seem to stem from any particular moment of epiphany.

However, the action left Jesse's story sometimes to focus on the politics of whether to boycott the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Jeremy Irons plays Avery Brundage, a real-life businessman and member of the American committee who is debating with others on the boycott. He argues that the Olympics need to be about sports only, and to be above politics, and that the rumors about German reprisals against Jews are only rumors. Brundage is sent to Germany to check things out and come back with a report. There he meets Leni Riefenstahl the filmmaker and Herman Goebbels, having tense negotiations about how the Germans need to clean up their act. The Germans take this to mean that they must merely hide their atrocities against the Jews, and give lip service to inclusion. They also make some sort of building deal with Brundage that they later use to blackmail him with. It's a little confusing if you don't know the history. Hitler is barely glimpsed from a distance, with the focus mainly on Goebbels.

I think the film gets a little strange and inaccurate once they get to the Olympics and keep interacting with all these famous historical figures. Leni is made to appear somewhat sympathetic and defiant to the disapproving Goebbels. But in real life, at least according to Wikipedia, Leni was friendly with Goebbels and made Nazi propaganda films. I don't know why they chose to write the story this way, or even to try to redeem Brundage somewhat by having him argue with Goebbels about Hitler not shaking Jesse Owens's hand. It just seemed to make things more murky. I would have been fine if Jesse's only allies in Berlin had been his coach, teammates, and that German athlete who was so publicly supportive.

But overall I liked the film and what it tried to accomplish, showing lots of nuance and complexity. In Berlin, I did like Jesse and his black teammate discovering the idea of no segregation in Europe and bonding with their Jewish teammates too. Jesse's coach also got a fleeting glimpse of some Jews being rounded up, when he wandered around at night, though he didn't see much specific and was marched away by German officers. WWII was always looming in the background.

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