Following a notable high school track career, Jesse Owens (Stephan James) is recruited by Ohio State University – with a full-ride scholarship. However, Owens is not a typical college student; instead, balancing the responsibility of sending money back home, to provide for his girlfriend and young daughter, with a high-pressure spot on the school’s track team – coached by the tough but impassioned Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). A former Olympic contender who “missed his shot,” Snyder pushes Owens to new heights (and top speeds) – transforming the OSU athlete into a national star.
As Owens breaks one track record after another, the “Buckeye Bullet” becomes embroiled in controversy. In spite of his personal triumphs, black men and women remain second-class citizens in the United States and, abroad, especially in Nazi Germany – the upcoming location of the 1936 Summer Olympic Games. When American representatives of the International Olympic Committee reluctantly agree to proceed with U.S. participation in the Berlin Games, to the dismay of protests back home, Owens is put in the unenviable position of competing for more than just Olympic gold: the track star would be tasked with standing on the world-stage, before Adolph Hitler himself, and competing for the dignity of persecuted people across the globe.
Despite setting multiple world records, and a pivotal role in the 1936 Olympic Games, Race marks the first time that a feature film, centered on Jesse Owens, is hitting the big screen. While Race relies on a conventional historical biopic framework, director Stephen Hopkins (Predator 2 and The Life and Death of Peter Sellers) conveys Owens and his larger-than-life role in fighting global bigotry as a near-mythic tale – full of colorful cinematography and exciting recreations of the athlete’s most memorable competitions. The juxtaposition between brief moments of rousing sport (a 10-second race or single long jump) set against a ravenous Olympic stadium in the center of Nazi-controlled Berlin, successfully reinforces the film’s primary message: one person, one choice, one action, can change the course of history.
Writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse follow the relatively standard docudrama story of a rising star, mentored by a former champion-turned washout, who suffers personal setbacks in the face of sociopolitical challenges – only to achieve personal glory (as well as leave a lasting impression on the external world). Though, Hopkins’ ability to capture Owens’ journey within the tense and racially charged atmosphere of the 1936 Olympics (only three years before Germany invaded Poland) elevates Race slightly above its biopic contemporaries. Much like the title suggests, Race is as much a chance to reflect on civil rights as it is a chronicle of Owens’ journey to Olympic heroism – and Hopkins takes every possible opportunity to relish in the black american’s wins (and the resulting disappointment of U.S. and Nazi bigots alike).
Still, some of the best scenes in the film come from real-life people that defied fascism – a nuance that Hopkins emphasizes, exploiting biopic tropes and audience expectations, to highlight a few surprising gestures of humanity that aided Owens on his path to greatness (and ensure the same moments are just as affecting to moviegoers as they were to Owens at the time).
Rising talent Stephan James (Selma) portrays Owens in a powerful performance that captures the beloved athlete’s exuberance, his on-the-field grit, and personal humility. That said, while James is solid from beginning to end, Race often leans on presentation over performance – meaning that how Hopkins depicts certain scenes, through stylized flourishes and lush cinematography, takes some of the focus off of James and the other principle actors (undercutting what they might have been able to do with their roles in a more conventional biopic). Nevertheless, James has plenty of reason to be proud of his work in Race – he delivers a version of Jesse Owens that honors the man and gives modern audiences a sense of how exciting it was, back in 1936, to see the athlete in action.
Jason Sudeikis (Horrible Bosses) steps outside of his usual comedy comfort zone to play Coach Larry Snyder – and, in spite of a few stiff exchanges and fleeting moments of on-the-nose drama, the comedian turns in an engaging portrait of Owens’ college mentor. Select scenes between Owens and Snyder are rote but the dynamic is rich enough to avoid becoming an impression or copy of similar coach/athlete movie stories. Hopkins’ attempts to explore Snyder’s backstory; though, the coach is rarely any more interesting than the movie’s central subject – and is, frequently, used for the purpose of advancing the story (or to serving as a point of comparison).
Other famous faces: Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage, an International Olympic Committee delegate, Shanice Banton as Ruth Solomon, Owens’ wife (as well as the mother of his child), and Shamier Anderson as Eulace Peacock, Owens’ college rival, contribute to a sharp cast. That said, some side characters and stories are better than others – both in terms of adapting real-life people and in ensuring those people have a comparatively rewarding role to play in the Race plot.
Unfortunately, Nazi minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) is a one-note mustache-twirling villain – and where Hopkins manages to carve out a stirring arc for David Kross as Carl “Luz” Long, a German athlete who befriends Owens in Berlin, the director struggles to find the same subtlety in Carice van Houten’s depiction of propaganda director Leni Riefenstahl. While Riefenstahl’s documentary affords Hopkins an opportunity to recreate iconic shots from historical footage, within Race as a movie, Riefenstahl (who remains a controversial figure in Nazi history) comes across as more self-indulgent side story; one director honoring the achievements of another, rather than an essential piece to this story about Jesse Owens.
Hopkins packs a lot of history into his Jesse Owens movie – highlighting the parallels between a black track runner and the overarching struggles of racial discrimination in the World War II era. Ultimately, Race excels with flashy 1930s atmosphere and stirring sport sequences but falls short of greatness thanks to heavy reliance on biopic movie tropes. It’s a quality adaptation of Jesse Owens and his journey to Olympic (as well as humanitarian) glory – but, unlike the film’s protagonist, Hopkins rarely pushes the docudrama beyond previously established limits and expectations. Instead, Race finishes in the middle of the biopic genre pack – a bronze medal winner that honors Jesse Owens but falls short of cinematic greatness.
Race runs 134 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language. Now playing in theaters.
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