Richard Friedman
Jewish Federation director, Journalist

Every Jew Should See The Jesse Owens Movie

Every Jew should see the Jesse Owens movie.  This outstanding film, titled “Race,” is currently playing in theaters. It tells the story of Owens’ ascendancy, challenges and fame as an international track and field star.

Owens, who died in 1980 at age 66, remains one of America’s most famous African Americans  and his saga and track and field achievements are widely known.

He was born in Alabama, became a legendary track and field star at Ohio State University, and achieved immortality in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He encountered bigotry and racial prejudice at each point along the way.

By winning four Olympic gold medals and defying the Nazi’s notion of their racial superiority, as Adolph Hitler and his henchmen watched in silence, Owens repudiated Nazism on the world stage in an Olympics remembered to this day.

A component of that Olympics, also portrayed in the film, was the Nazis’ anti-Semitism and how some of the Americans involved in the Olympics reflected and enabled it.

“Race” is a powerful movie. Though Owens’ Alabama upbringing is not heavily featured, his family leaving our state for Ohio reminds us of those difficult days when many African-Americans left Alabama to escape racism and seek better opportunity in the North and Midwest.

The film also is a reminder that whatever political, policy and cultural differences arise between Jews and blacks, that we have a shared history — being the victims of hatred and bigotry — and we should never forget that nor lose our compassion for each other.

And we, as Jews in Alabama, where many of the major American Civil Rights battles took place, should always make a special effort to remember this, particularly when it comes to the continued plight of Aftican-Americans.

The movie portrays Owens becoming aware of and anguished by racism and anti-Semitism as his fame increases. It also takes a hard look at the racism the track star faced in America even after he became one of the most famous and inspirational people in the world.

An added touch for me was not only seeing the film in Birmingham, Alabama, where I live, but having the University of Cincinnati track and field team in the theatre as well.  They were in town for a meet.  It was a powerful juxtaposition with the film, particularly those scenes where Owens encounters raw and difficult racism from white Ohio State athletes.

Here, in the theater, 80 years later, was a track and field team from Ohio, about 50 young men and women, black and white, mingling and sitting together, framed by friendship and camaraderie.  One member of the team told me that they came to see the movie to give them inspiration.  It no doubt did — both on and off the field.

In fact, the title of this powerful movie, “Race,” can be interpreted as having four references — to track and field, to race relations in general, to Nazi theories of Aryan racial superiority, and, most importantly, to the ongoing race within each of us between our latent, unintended prejudices toward others and our better selves.

Let our better selves win: That is the essence of the Jesse Owens story.

About the Author
Richard Friedman is Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation in Alabama. He also is a well-known Alabama journalist.