Race is the biopic of Jesse Owens, the American man who broke track and field records almost any time he competed, and the man who brought home four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Jesse Owens was black, and the title of the film is working on a variety of levels.
True Confession: I ran track in school and therefore I knew exactly who Jesse Owens was and why he was amazing and mattered so much before I ever saw this movie. I’ve seen the iconic pictures of him standing in front of Hitler holding a gold medal while the American National Anthem played more than once. But I honestly didn’t know what Owens went through in order to get there. I suspected a lot of it, but Race does an excellent job of showing what it was like for a talent of Owens’ level to manage to thrive in the day and age he was living in.
We see Owens (Stephan James) as he’s leaving his home town for Ohio State University in 1933. It’s never clearly stated, but he’s there on an athletic scholarship. He’s chosen Ohio State because of the coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) – because Snyder’s supposed to be the best track coach around. He is, and Owens is the best runner anyone’s ever seen. Together they start to change the face of sports.
Meanwhile, the American Olympics committee is split – half, led by Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), want to pull out of the Olympics due to the Nazi’s treatment of gypsies and Jews. The other half, led by Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), want to keep America in, so as not to disappoint the athletes. The committee send Brundage over to Germany to see what’s really going on in Berlin and make the determination for what America should do.
While Race follows a very standard biopic format – incredibly likeable hero succeeds, has personal and professional failures, comes back and succeeds on a giant stage both personally and professionally, helped or hindered by mentors, friends, and lovers along the way – the secondary storyline provides additional dramatic tension and an interesting look at the compromises made by Brundage in order to get the American team to the Olympics.
Brundage is a gray character – he’s not evil, he’s a former athlete and wants the current ones to get their chance. However, he, like Leni Reifenstahl (Carice van Houten) are both more focused on what they want and, in Leni’s case, surviving her relationship with the Third Reich, particularly Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) – the truly terrifying character in this movie – so they make decisions, both good and bad, that impact not only the Olympics but, ultimately the world at large. Metschurat does a fantastic job of making Goebbels terrifying with limited dialog. He’s all menace and any scene he’s in is tense merely because he’s there.
Meanwhile, Owens is dealing with the standard horrific racism that was flourishing so well in America. What the movie shows, possibly unintentionally, is how far we haven’t come from these days. It’s painful and frustrating to watch how the greatest athlete America had during this time was treated by the very people who wanted him to succeed.
The film drags in only one place (if you have to go to the bathroom, race for it – heh – when Snyder walks Owens into the stadium in Berlin for the first time – you have two minutes of “spectacle bloat” that don’t actually advance the plot or action). Otherwise, it’s a very entertaining movie, even if it deliberately chooses not to move as fast as its star. That is not to say it’s slow or boring, but the pacing is set on a steady build.
Several characters are underdeveloped. Eli Goree (Dave Albritton), a friend of Owens’ since, we think, childhood also goes with him to Ohio State on an athletic scholarship, is also on the track team under Snyder, and is also at the Olympics. And the movie gives us almost nothing about this important person and character. He’s mostly there to tease Owens into doing something stupid and getting hurt, or to stand around watching Owens with a supportive look. He’s also the one who shows the anger at how blacks are treated by whites. There is another black Ohio State team member who also goes to the Olympics and wins medals, but even after looking at IMDB I can’t be sure if the actor I think he is was the character, since I don’t think we’re ever really introduced to him. In a film about how badly black athletes were treated, it seems somewhat shameful that these two characters were basically ignored and only used as filler, in that sense, even though Goree is in the entire film and the other character is in half of it.
We do get to spend time with Carl “Luz” Long (David Kross), Germany’s and Europe’s top track and field athlete. He and Owens bond over the long jump, with Luz showing that not all Germans were evil or approved of what their country was doing. The talk between Luz and Owens about racism in both countries is extremely well done and, sadly, still relevant today.
There are also two Jewish American Olympiads, Marty Glickman (Jeremy Ferdman) and Sam Stoller (Giacomo Gianniotti), possibly the only Jews at this Olympics, and what happens to them is why Owens, who was only supposed to do three events, ended up with four gold medals.
As with Titanic, we know the ultimate outcome. But also as with Titanic, the journey to the Olympics and after is the point. Despite my few quibbles, Race is an excellent movie that treats its subject with respect but not undue reverence. And, despite how far we’ve managed to come, the ending scene and information about what happened to who after the events of the film are sharp reminders that we haven’t come nearly far enough.
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Based on the incredible true story of Jesse Owens, the legendary athletic superstar whose quest to become the greatest track and field athlete in history thrusts him onto the world stage of the 1936 Olympics, where he faces off against Adolf Hitler’s vision of Aryan supremacy. “Race” is an enthralling film about courage, determination, tolerance, and friendship, and an inspiring drama about one man’s fight to become an Olympic legend.
Cast: Carice von Houten, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, Amanda Crew, Tim McInnerny, William Hurt, Giacomo Gianniotti, Jonathan Aris, Eli Goree, Stephen James
Directed by: Stephen Hopkins
Written by: Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse