'Race': Inside the Jesse Owens Biopic's "Undercutting" Final Scene

Thibault Grabherr/Focus Features
'Race'

"While I believe it is a cynical ending, it is an honest ending, and I can't help but see the hope there," Jason Sudeikis told THR of the closing moments, based on actual events.

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the movie Race.]

Beyond the finish line of Race is a bittersweet ending.

Directed by Stephen Hopkins, the Focus Features release — which sees Stephan James as Jesse Owens, the track and field athlete who overcame adversity to win four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Germany, where he was confronted with Hitler's vision of Aryan supremacy — closes with a glamorous gala at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Though he was the evening's honoree, the gold medalist was not allowed to enter through the front door and was forced to take the building's freight elevator.

"Jesse still came back to a very racist America, and he wasn't any less black than he was when he left," James told The Hollywood Reporter of the scene, which is based on the true event. "But I think Jesse was always the type of person who showed a lot of restraint. That, to him, was his normal everyday life as a black man in 1936."

The strategy behind the "undercutting" scene, which immediately follows Owens' Olympic victory onscreen, was to "stand for how badly he was mistreated and abandoned after the games, and that anecdote popped up in various sources from the time," said co-writer Joe Shrapnel, as Owens was never congratulated by then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt and eventually resorted to racing against horses and working at a gas station.

Shooting the scene was tough for Shanice Banton, who plays Owens' wife Ruth. "I've never experienced something where I couldn't walk into the front of somewhere because of the color of my skin, so to have to tap into emotions like that was extremely overwhelming," she said at last week's New York premiere.

However, the artistic license taken afterward is what the cast hopes resonates most: upon boarding the freight elevator, Owens and his wife encounter a young white boy who asks him for his autograph. "That moment is a glimmer of hope — maybe, in the future, things will be better, they'll just respect him for what he had done [and see] his individual greatness rather than what he looked like aesthetically," said James. "That child didn't see black or white, he just saw a hero, the fastest man on the planet, the great Jesse Owens. I think that's very telling."

It's an atypical ending for a biopic, but Jason Sudeikis calls it authentic: "The fact that we end there versus, say, an Olympic podium, really speaks to what was going on then, and it echoes what's going on now. While I believe it is a cynical ending, it is an honest ending, and I can't help but see the hope there — at least the doorman knows it's wrong."

He added, "Besides, it's disingenuous if he were to let him in through the front door, because then it [means] you have to go and win four gold medals and become an American icon in order to not be seen as black?!"

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