How Accurate is 'Race'? The Jesse Owens Biopic Stays True To History
American track and field star Jesse Owens is the focus of the movie Race, in theaters Feb 19. The biopic tells the story of Owens' quest for the gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which took place amidst the rise of the Nazi party. Owens' four medal victory therefore held an unusual level of significance, and the new movie makes sure to acknowledge this. But just how accurate is Race ? According to UNC's Niner Times, the answer is "very."
At a college press conference in LA, the cast and crew of Race — as well as Owens' real-life family — spoke about how the filmmakers strove to accurately depict Owens' character and the events surrounding the Berlin Olympics. Niner Times quoted star Stephan James as saying, "There’s a lot of added pressure in telling these stories, with these characters being notable, real-life people. As an actor in this role, you can’t fake these things...it’s not about just research, it’s about waking up each day and living how these guys lived."
Owens had a limited quantity of reference material available to him given that the events of the film took place in the 1930s, but he did have the opportunity to speak at length with Owens' daughters Marlene and Beverly. Owens' family played a major role in the development and revision of the script, which helped to ensure that both their father and the time period were reflected accurately.
Beverly said at the panel, “I think they did a phenomenal job embracing his character and projecting it. Since we had script approval, we knew from the start that the film was gonna be accurate. The filmmakers were so cooperative in making changes in the script and even after the film was shot, if there was something we wanted tweaked, they obliged us wholeheartedly.”
It's great to hear that filmmakers were so dedicated to the film's historical accuracy, especially since not all sports films demonstrate the same standard. Here's how some other famous films about athletes gave the "Hollywood treatment" to the real-life stories upon which they were based.
The Blind Side
NFL player Michael Oher has spoken out on multiple occasions about how the 2009 film starring Sandra Bullock only tells part of his story. USA Today reports that Oher's journey to greatness, which is detailed in his memoir, I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness to The Blind Side and Beyond, started long before he was taken under the wing of Leigh Anne Tuohy. In fact, Oher's transformation began at 11 — years before the events of The Blind Side — when he first decided to channel his energy into getting out of the ghetto. His self-motivation and work ethic were largely what saved Oher, which the movie glosses over in favor of emphasizing Tuohy's altruism.
While the film about two Formula 1 racing rivals was lauded as being accurate in many aspects of its story, there is one detail that was heavily exaggerated: the supposed animosity between the two drivers. Although James Hunt and Niki Lauda were in fact competitors, they were also friends. The Guardian reports that Hunt once said, "I got on very well with Niki and always had...We raced against each other but we also teamed up as mates, not just casual acquaintances." Rush took a more dramatic approach to the relationship, portraying Hunt and Lauda as bitter rivals.
Remember the Titans
The official webpage of the "Original Titans" provides clarification about many events in the film, and reveals that much of the movie was inaccurate in comparison to the real-life occurrences. The dramatization of the events is perhaps best summed up by the site's statement that "The movie never pretends to be a true story, it is based on a true story. This statement can lead to a large range of variance on how certain events are depicted. Of course there are many differences between what really happened and the story presented in the movie."
Although The Fighter was lauded for its historical accuracy in regards to the life and career of boxer Mickey Ward, some viewers took issue with inaccuracies surrounding details of Ward's fights. In particular, discrepancies have been noted between Ward's real-life fighting record, weigh-ins at certain matches, and how a few significant matches unfolded.
When making a sports biopic, filmmakers are confronted with the difficult challenge of balancing real-life detail with an engaging cinematic narrative. Based on the comments of the cast and Owens' real family, it appears that Race definitely succeeds at the former. And from the looks of the trailer, it looks like the movie will be pretty gripping, too.
Image: Focus Features