Starring Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Eli Goree, Shanice Banton, Carice van Houten, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt, Chantel Riley, Shamier Anderson, David Kross, Jonathan Higgins, Amanda Crew, Tony Curran, Barnaby Metschurat, Vlasta Vrana, Jesse Bostick, Moe Jeudy-Lamour, Gaetan Normandin, Jacob Andrew Kerr, Dondre Octave, Jeremy Ferdman, Giacomo Gianniotti and Tim McInnerny.
Screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse.
Directed by Stephen Hopkins.
Distributed by Focus Features. 134 minutes. Rated PG-13.
The title for this bio-pic of legendary Olympic runner Jesse Owens works on a few levels.
On the most basic level, as an iconic track and field star, Owens is often shown literally racing. It was his speed which brought him to public notice.
It also goes without saying that as a pioneering black athlete in the 1930s, the athlete faced serious racial discrimination, and most of what he achieved broke down walls for athletes of color who followed him.
Finally, the 1936 Berlin Olympics – held a mere three years before World War II – was seen as a significant propaganda tool for Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and the nascent Nazi Party. They saw it as a way to promote a perfect Aryan ideal of a pure-bred super race, only to have their hoped message dashed when a black American athlete won four gold medals and became the breakout star of the Olympiad.
Jesse Owens led a fascinating and substantial life and Race gives a nice history lesson on the man’s accomplishments 80 years after he revolutionized his sport. (And 36 years after he died of lung cancer.)
Extraordinarily played by British actor Stephan James – who had also had a show-stopping supporting role as another civil rights icon, playing future congressman John Lewis in Selma – Owens’ life is turned into a rousing, feel-good drama.
Smartly, the film keeps the time period limited, starting with him as a young, poor man in Cleveland who due to his athletic skills has received a scholarship to become the first person in his family to go to college. His skills are quickly recognized at Ohio State by coach Larry Snyder (a well-turned dramatic bit by comedian Jason Sudeikis), a former athlete turned down on his luck coach, whose job is in jeopardy.
Race takes Owens through most of the standard bio-pic moves – proving his great skill, dealing with prejudice, letting fame go to his head, having a short-lived (and frankly a bit underexplored) affair before going back to marry the love of his life, and eventually getting the opportunity to go for the gold.
A side plot is going throughout, as the US racing world, as represented by Jeremy Irons and William Hurt, debate whether the US should participate in the Berlin Olympics as news of Nazi atrocities start to surface.
I’ve heard some people suggest that Race sort of whitewashes some of the horrors going on around the story – both the Nazi atrocities that were winding up at the time of the Olympic games and also the racial prejudice that Owens had to deal with. Those are probably legitimate complaints with the film, though it may be a little harsh.
The problem is even somewhat understandable at least on the Nazi side. This is Jesse Owens’ story, so it only shows what he and the people directly around him experienced. In 1936, the Nazi persecution of Jews was just coming to light, but was still being mostly hidden from the world at large. It was being done in dark corners and back alleys, and Race shows this, but Jesse Owens himself did not have to deal with it as much. As far as the racial problems Owens dealt with at home, those were definitely dealt with in the movie. Yes, it may have been even worse in reality than it is portrayed in the film, but it is certainly not overlooked.
Also, occasionally the characters of Owens and his family are not looked at deeply enough. For instance, when the NAACP was pressuring Owens not to go to the Olympics, his beloved wife Ruth tells Jesse, “Don’t think about it too much. That’s not what you’re good at.” It’s a funny line and scores an easy laugh, but looking back you can’t help but notice that the line is rather harsh. I know it wasn’t meant in that way, but nonetheless it’s a bit uncomfortable.
However, these complaints are slight in a truly inspirational drama. Also, because of the fact that Owens’ story has not been made into a dramatic film in decades, Race returns a very worthy man to the spotlight for generations who may not know of his skill and bravery, which is where he deserves to run.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2016 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: February 19, 2016.