We Americans are, I’ve always felt, inconsistent in our appreciation for and embrace of our own history. On the one hand we look back so we can see how far we’ve come and try to learn from our mistakes and errors in the past. On the other we sometimes reject any looking back because it’s not where we’re heading and this country is always about where we’re going, what’s in front of us. We’re racing to the next thing at such a breakneck pace we often forget to fully appreciate where we’ve been and the struggles it took to get there as we concentrate on the struggles facing us at this moment.
Which brings us to Race, a new biopic of famed Olympic athlete Jesse Owens. The movie follows Owens (played by Stephan James) from his college career under the coaching of Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) through to his appearance in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. That appearance was, of course, mired in controversy since it would mean Owens, a black man, competing in an event hosted by the ascending Nazi Party not long before the full-on outbreak of World War II. Not only that, but it was still a good 25-30 years before the civil rights movement in this country would become a force for societal change.
The one poster sets the stage for the movie pretty effectively. The predominant image is that of James as Owens, one hand in front of his face as he races down the track. In the background you see other races on his tail – but far behind him – as well as the crowd in the stands, swastika-laden flags coming down from the rafters. Above the title treatment, which features a racing image in the middle of it, we’re told explicitly this is “The incredible true story of gold medal champion Jesse Owens.”
It’s a good one-sheet that features, as mentioned above, most of the main elements of the story. Or at least these are the most recognizable elements of the best known part of the story. There’s a lot that’s in the movie that isn’t included here, but it hits the beats that are most likely to be widely known by anyone who’s gone through sixth-grade Social Studies, so it works in that regard.
The first trailer opens by introducing us to Owens. We meet him, see him become part of the training program that will open up opportunities to him and begin to train under his coach. Then he’s given the opportunity to participate in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, something that immediately comes under scrutiny because..well..Nazis. We see him subjected to the everyday racism that was common to that era, from separate seats on the bus to not being able to use the showers. And he’s encouraged to boycott the Games as an act of support for the people being oppressed (and worse) in Germany. Ultimately, of course, he participates and blows the competition out of the water.
It’s a very effective trailer, even if it does hit all the usual biopic beats. I like how it seems to focus on a defined period of Owens’ life as opposed to a cradle-to-grave scope. That may or may not be accurate to the full movie, but that’s the impression the trailer gives.
Online and Social
The movie’s official website opens with one of the TV spots that plays automatically. After you watch and close that there are a few buttons to click on the landing page. Those include standard things like “Watch the Trailer” and “Buy Tickets” as well as a link to Jesse-Owens.org, the site for the Jesse Owens Foundation.
Going back to the main movie site, the first section of content in the right-hand menu is “Videos” but I only can find one video, the theatrical trailer, there. After that is “Story,” which has a brief synopsis of the movie’s plot as well as another link to the Owens Foundation’s website.
“Cast & Crew” just has bios on the cast that I can find and which are accessed when you click on the photo of the actor playing each character. There are about a dozen stills from the movie in the “Gallery.” Finally “Partners” has links to the sites for the companies that are providing some sort of promotional support.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
TV spots started running a couple months out from release with commercials that were essentially condensed trailers and which focused on the inspirational story of the movie.
Other spots would hit similar themes, all playing as variations on the theatrical trailer and selling the movie in a similar manner, though with variations here and there.
According to the official website the movie’s promotional partner companies included:
- 24 Hour Fitness: No details I could find anywhere, though it makes sense a fitness company like this would want to tag along.
- Shake Shack: Again, no details to be found but this one makes…a little less sense.
- Voss Water: The only mention of the movie on Voss’ site is a fairly generic shoutout acknowledging the movie as part of its Black History Month celebration. My guess – and this is only a guess – is they provided production support.
- Cramer Sports Med: The company is an “Official Launch Partner” for the movie and while there’s nothing explicit tying it and the story of Jesse Owens together, the company’s history says in 1932 it was selected as the official athletic trainer for the U.S. Olympic team.
- Hormel: Ran a sweeps offering pairs of tickets to see the movie
- Bonk Breakers: Nothing substantial, though the company site touts lots of connections with the current U.S. Olympics organization, so maybe there was something there.
Media and Publicity
NBCUniversal put its synergistic muscles to use, scheduling an NBC Sports documentary about Owens and his trip to the Berlin Olympics that aired the weekend before the movie came out.
The cast, particularly James and Sudeikis, made the press and talk show rounds to promote the movie and talk about being part of such an important story. In the case of Sudeikis there was a bit of spillover between the press for this and the recent Tumbledown, which was released on VOD just a couple weeks ago.
It’s unsurprising how seriously the marketing here takes both itself and the subject matter it’s selling. Sure, there are little spots of humor here and there, particularly from Sudeikis, but for the most part this is a Very Important Topic…and rightfully so. This is a very important topic and one that defied not just the racial discrimination happening in this country but also sent an important message of racial equality to one of the most terrible governments in the history of the world. This is a big deal, which is why Owens’ moment in the games is still considered such a landmark.
So the campaign sells a serious and important movie filled with lots of dramatic moments. We know how this story plays out so it needs to really work to play up not only the big things but the smaller ones as well, which is why we see so much here of the conversations that take place in backrooms, offices and kitchens. The studio is selling a drama first and a sports drama second as it tries to tell you the story behind the one you already know.