Now here’s a story that deserves to be told. Jesse Owens may not be a household name now, but those that are familiar with his life know just how influential and important he was during his lifetime. Without knowing anything other than the man this film is based on, surely you would think the words ‘awards contender’ would be falling out of reviews for this film, but when it came out in America the word of mouth was a little bit mixed. Add to that this film’s rating of PG (most biopics tend to be a little more adult than that), and I was starting to get worried that this film wouldn’t do his story justice, despite it having possibly the best title ever.
In the early 1930’s, Jesse Owens (Stephan James) only had one goal – to become the greatest track and field athlete of all time. While suffering racial prejudice at home in America, things were about to get a lot worse, as the upcoming 1936 Olympics were set to take place in Germany, under the rule of Adolf Hitler. Because of this, the question stopped being whether or not he could win gold but became whether or not he should go to a country with such deep-seeded racism. At the same time, Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), a member of the International Olympic Committee, was trying to convince his peers that America should go and compete in the games.
I’m happy to say that any concerns I had going into this film were completely unfounded. This story is so interesting and important that really, it would’ve been tough to make it into a bad film. Stephan James plays all sides of Jesse Owens well, from him being cocky with his friends, to his inability to look an authoritative white man in the eye, and I was really surprised to see Jason Sudeikis take on such a serious role – and be good at it.
While this is the story of Jesse Owens, the subplot focusing on the Olympic Committee manages to be just as exciting. Jeremy Irons gives a powerful performance as Avery Bundage, in a story thread that addresses racial prejudice from a completely different, but equally interesting angle. There are a few scenes he has with Nazi characters where they come off being a little bit over the top, and almost pantomimic, however, another story we get to see is that of Leni Riefenstahl (played with ease by Carice van Houten), the filmmaker trusted with recording the games. This perfectly balanced out the good vs evil stereotypes and made for a more well-rounded film.
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