The homonymous title of this biopic refers not only to the events Jesse Owens competed in, but also the struggles he endured as an African-American in the 1930’s. Whereas these were bought into sharp focus for Owens at the 1936 Olympic Games held in Nazi Germany, the racism he experienced on home soil was far more sustained.
While the United States Olympic Committee debates whether participation in the Games will lend legitimacy to Nazi Germany’s racist policies, Owens travels at the back of a bus to Ohio State University to train with coach Larry Snyder. As his technique improves and his fame grows, Owens faces increasing pressure to boycott the Games to highlight the racist policies at home, a duplicity highlighted by the warm welcome he receives from the host country. However, not all is as it seems.
Though this inspiring story is competently told, it does fail to provide the expected emotional impact. Jason Sudeikis equips himself well in his first dramatic role, but like much of the film, his performance rarely delves beneath the surface. Nevertheless, his character’s relationship with Owens, engagingly performed by Stephan James, is nicely realised. David Kross also registers as Owen’s competitor, the German long-jumper Luz Long.
Though this biopic's main strengths lie in its story rather than its telling, it is nevertheless an enjoyable film. Yet it is particularly instructive that the biggest emotional wallop occurs once the camera stops rolling and we learn ultimate fate of some of the characters via an end title sequence. It appears that Hitler was not the only world leader to snub Jesse Owens.
Film perpetuates the myth that Hitler snubbed Owens after his gold medal performance in the 100 metre dash, something Owens himself disputed. Donald McRae, in his book ‘Heroes Without a Country: America’s Betrayal of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens’, states that Hitler had actually snubbed Cornelius Johnson, the African-American who won the high jump gold medal the day before Owens’ achievement.
It was IOC president Henri Ballet-Latour, not Avery Brundage, who insisted Hitler shake hands with all gold medallists or none at all.
Biopic depicts several scenes of Leni Riefenstahl filming Olympia, as well as briefly including actual footage from the film.