Eighty years after winning four gold medals in track and field at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Jesse Owens’ accomplishments have now been immortalized on film. Wisely, the screenplay (written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse) doesn’t attempt to be an all-encompassing biopic but rather focuses on the years 1934-36, when Owens (played by Stephan James) developed from a talented novice into a world champion, due in large measure to his admission to Ohio State University and the training he received from his coach Larry Snyder (Sudeikis). Race is every bit a sports movie in the classic sense of a story about defeat and glory, hard work and ambition, but it is also a social study about the complications of race relations in the U.S. and abroad, which lends the film an acuity that surpasses mere sports drama.
At its heart, Race tells the story of a young black man in the Depression era who not only has to confront racism at home, from other players in the locker rooms, and ill treatment in the wider society, but also his internalized racism, which prevents him from making eye contact with his coach when they are speaking. Moreover, he carries a heavy burden for a young man in deciding whether to even play in the Berlin Games, which were designed to become a showcase for the Nazi ideal. Pressure was placed on Owens from every direction. His coach and school want him to play because he will, in all likelihood, come home with medals; the NAACP officially beseeches Owens to stay home in protest of the Nazi ideology. Owens’ father astutely recognizes that his son will be damned either way: excoriated by racists whether he plays or doesn’t play, targeted by them if he wins, and rejected by his own race if he loses.
These conflicts play out on other stages, as well. Cutaways show U.S. Olympics leaders are also struggling with finding the correct approach: to attend or boycott Berlin. These dynamics are given voice by Avery Brundage (Irons) and Jeremiah Mahoney (Hurt), Brundage being in favor of attendance and Mahoney favoring boycott. Other cutaways showcase the tensions faced by filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, whose epic, two-part film Olympia was commissioned by Adolf Hitler but stymied by his propaganda minister Josef Goebbels – not to mention that Owens’ quadruple wins undercut the film’s intended exaltation of Nazi eugenics. Two Jews on Ohio’s track and field team are also shown getting the shaft due to political appeasements. And of course, all this plays out in an atmosphere where Joe Louis was knocked out by the widely reviled German boxer Max Schmeling just months before the 1936 Olympics were set to take place.
These social tensions and the film’s narrow focus on two years of Owens’ life make it much more than a simple sports drama. As Owens, relative newcomer Stephan James delivers a stirring performance, and as his coach, comedian Jason Sudeikis turns in a solid and smirk-free performance. Director Stephen Hopkins (most of whose recent work has been for TV) does a serviceable job at the helm, but adds little zing to the proceedings. But in a racing drama, it’s probably best to remember to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
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