Race is one part feel-good biopic and one part unnerving history lesson.
Aside from tales of Middle-Earth and stories about galaxies far, far away, there’s nothing I’m a bigger sucker for than a rousing true story—especially one that will make me want to seek out more information about its subject after I’ve left the theater. Race—a film whose title is thick with dual meaning—did just that. Director Stephen Hopkins (best known for directing episodes of 24 and House of Lies) and married screenwriting team Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse chose to focus on a few key years in Olympic runner Jesse Owens’ (Stephan James) life, starting with his first day of school at Ohio State University in late 1933, up to his astounding four-gold-medal triumph at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. But this film is more than just a look at the height of a legendary athlete’s career; it’s also a subtle commentary on the ugly prejudices that have always, to this day, plagued the best of nations.
At OSU, Owens teams up with Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), a track coach with something to prove. While I didn’t find any of the cast’s individual performances to be particularly noteworthy, James and Sudeikis had exceptional (and more importantly, believable) mentor-student, we’re-in-this-crazy-thing-together chemistry. One of the most memorable scenes takes place in the men’s locker room, where the football team viciously insults and threatens Owens and his fellow black teammates. The tension rises and the shouting match becomes almost unbearable, but all the while Coach Snyder stares straight at Jesse, ordering him to ignore the ranting crowd that’s growing more agitated by the second. Then, for one brilliant moment, we see (and hear) things from Jesse’s perspective: the racist jocks fade into the background, only Snyder’s face is in focus, and only Snyder’s voice can be heard, asking Jessie if he has the ability to block it all out. “Yes,” the young athlete responds, quietly and calmly. It’s a lesson he’ll need to come back to again and again.
After the relationship between Snyder and Owens is established and it’s clear what the runner is up against on his home turf, Hopkins takes us inside meetings of the American Olympic Association, where leaders Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) and Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) disagree on whether the U.S. should participate in the upcoming Berlin games, given disconcerting reports out of Nazi Germany regarding anti-Semitic practices. The second half of the film is dominated by this moral quandary. What sends the better message to the rest of the world: backing out of the event in protest, or showing up to compete and (hopefully) proving Hitler’s ideology wrong? We also get a taste of the enormous pressure Owens was under, with everyone from his coach to the NAACP trying to influence his decision to race in Berlin.
As if all of that weren’t enough, we also learn about a host of Owens’ personal struggles, his unlikely friendship with German competitor Luz Long (David Kross), the shady dealings between Brundage and the Nazi party, and the efforts of filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Game of Thrones’ Carice van Houten) to capture the games and glorify Nazi Germany. So, yeah, Race covers a lot of deep issues. But I respect that Hopkins approached these tough themes rather dispassionately instead of trying to make any sort of overt statement. In other words, he lets the audience sort out how to think and feel about the characters’ decisions during such a dark time in world history, and offers up—but doesn’t bang us over the head with—comparisons between racism in the United States and anti-Semitism in Germany. That being said, Riefenstahl’s storyline was distracting and seemed shoehorned in; the film would’ve been stronger without it.
The Bottom-Line? If you’re looking for insight into what made Jesse Owens tick, you won’t find much of that in Race. But in its own straightforward way, the film still manages to be contemplative, educational and inspiring, and you’ll be glad you saw it.
Cast: Stephan James (Jesse Owens), Jason Sudeikis (Larry Snyder), Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton), Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten)
Credits: Directed by Stephen Hopkins; written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse
Studio: Focus Features
Run Time: 2 hours 14 minutes