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Reel Life VS. Real Life: Race


The Jesse Owens biopic sometimes takes liberties with the truth and runs with it to make a better picture...

...history remains a rich source of inspiration for filmmakers hoping to captivate audiences...

Try as they might to stay true to history, Hollywood screenwriters discover that some things get in the way of a great story. Facts are embellished, dates get moved, several people turn into one wise-cracking composite – it’s all part of the process of transforming the messy stuff of reality into compelling movie drama.

It gets even more complicated when historians can’t agree on what happened due to the chaos of contradictory recollections and conflicting evidence. Nevertheless, history remains a rich source of inspiration for filmmakers hoping to captivate audiences (and maybe win some Oscars).

Race tells the story of Jesse Owens, the iconic African-American athlete whose record-shattering triumph at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin struck a blow against racism both in Nazi-era Germany and his native U.S. Fired up by the performances of Toronto’s Stephan James as Owens and Jason Sudeikis as his coach, Larry Snyder, the movie traces Owens’ journey from his early days of training to his gold-medal victories. It brings a fresh perspective to one of the most famous sports dramas of the 20th century.

As is so often the case for biopics, some of the movie’s most surprising developments prove that truth can be stranger than fiction. However, other aspects are more a matter of creative licence.

Here’s how many key matters portrayed in Race stack up in our Reel Life vs. Real Life truth meter:

Jesse Owens and his white coach enjoyed a close friendship that defied the eras racial divisions.

TRUE Owens later described Snyder an “accidental non-racist,” explaining that his coach was unusual for his time because he judged others by their abilities, not their skin colour. The two men were fiercely loyal, a fact the film conveys when Owens demands that Snyder come to Berlin over the objections of his U.S. Olympic coaches.

Owens had an affair with a socialite before marrying Minnie Ruth Solomon, the fiancée who already had borne their first daughter.

TRUE Though Race was made with the blessing of Owens’ children, it acknowledges that the young athlete faced many temptations during his first flush of fame in the mid-1930s.

A wealthy American builder who visited Berlin on a fact-finding mission for the U.S. Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage warned the Nazis that his country boycott the Olympics after he witnessed the mistreatment of Jewish citizens.

FALSE Brundage is one of the most divisive figures in the saga of the Berlin Olympics so it’s maybe not so surprising that Race doesn’t quite know what to do with him, presenting him as both protector of American values and shady, self-interested operator. According to the movie, he was sufficiently concerned by what he saw that he told German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels the Nazis would have to downplay their racial policies or the U.S. would boycott the games, as many committee members wanted to do. But his visit was strictly stage-managed by his German hosts and Brundage might have been all too happy to make sure they got what they wanted.

Compromised by his business dealings with the Nazis, Brundage also pressured the U.S. team into dropping two Jewish-American athletes from the 4x100 relay race that earned Owens his fourth gold medal.

UNDER DISPUTE Here, the makers of Race simplify a very murky matter. Runners Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman suspected anti-Semitism was the reason they were replaced by Owens and Ralph Metcalfe the day before the race, but Brundage insisted that their speed was the factor.

Adolf Hitler refused to meet with Owens, not wanting to be photographed with a black athlete.

FALSE Though many sources say the Führer was not pleased that an African-American had succeeded over his Aryan competitors, there’s little to confirm the veracity of the scene in which Brundage takes Owens to meet Hitler, only to be rudely informed by Goebbels he’d left for the day. Other accounts confirm that Hitler did indeed have an early departure, but Owens always stated that they had exchanged a wave in the stadium. The runner believed the press played up the myth of the snub and often emphasized how he felt welcomed by ordinary Germans. One thing that’s for certain: Owens was snubbed by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose White House did not acknowledge Owens’ achievement.

Owens triumph made the Olympics a huge embarrassment for the Nazis.

FALSE Actually, most historians believe that the Berlin games proved to be a PR bonanza for the Third Reich. Not only did Germany successfully present a peaceful, tolerant face to the world, but its athletes trounced all other countries at the medal count. The event also yielded Olympia, a hugely successful masterpiece of propaganda by director Leni Riefenstahl who -- contrary to Races flattering portrayal of her defying orders not to film Owens’ events -- acted very much in accordance with the wishes of her friend, Adolf. Though other scenes (including the last one) acknowledge that racism remained a cruel fact of life, Race’s makers clearly believed it was better to leave audiences with a more inspirational spin.

Jason Anderson writes about movies for Cinema Scope, FFWD, and the Toronto Star.