In “Race”, director Stephen Hopkins uses history as a backdrop to capture the moments surrounding the historic and groundbreaking performance of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Summer Olympics. Not only are the burdens of Owens as both a Running Man and Race Man brought to light, but we also get a glimpse into how family, faith, and fortitude made up the heart of this pioneering champion. While at times “Race” runs on autopilot from the biopic playbook, its overall story leaves you on your feet cheering for an inspired finish!
As an event biopic, “Race” starts not from the beginning of Jesse Owens’s life but at the start of his time as a student athlete at Ohio State University. Canadian actor Stephan James (known for his convincing turn as young activist John Lewis in “Selma”) takes on the role of Jesse Owens. The casting of James as Owens really hits the mark as he gracefully assumes the earnestness of Owens in stride. Larry Snyder, Owens’s coach, is portrayed by Jason Sudeikis. Early into the story, I found Sudeikis’s “tough love coach” to be a little overworked; however, as the story progressed and plot pressure increased on the characters, Sudeikis’s natural smirk and affability gave way to a maturity of a man who knows a thing or two about life and loss. The perspectives of two American Olympic Committee figures Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) and Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) craft the historical narrative of U.S. participation in the Olympic Games in Berlin. Mahoney supports a boycott of the games in light of Germany’s Nazi regime, while Brundage posits the Olympics are about sports and not politics. The veil of naiveté lifts for Brundage in his interactions with Hitler’s minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) and Nazi sympathizer and filmmaker Leni Riefanstahl (Carice van Houten, of “Game of Thrones” fame).
From a technical standpoint, “Race” visually captures the Spirit of ’36 in post-Depression America and Nazi Germany. Kudos to the film’s art director Jean-Pierre Paquet (“Pawn Sacrifice,” “300”). Under the direction of Hopkins, pivotal scenes of Owens’s journey unfold in larger-than-life vision. I gazed at the screen in awe when Owens first steps out into the stadium in Berlin and my stomach sank at the panning scene to the crowds saluting Hitler in the stands. I found myself at the edge of my seat when Owens takes to the track for the first time. And judging from that collective “hold your breath” feeling in the theater at the first Berlin race scene, I wasn’t the only one getting lost in the experience.
Unfortunately, missteps in editing and pacing make the latter part of the film more of a biographical sketch than actual exploration of Owens as a person. We never get a sense of the complexity of his rivalry with fellow black athlete Eulace Peacock (Shamier Anderson) nor do we gain insights into Owens’s romantic relationships. Peacock and women seem to just pop in and fade out randomly in the story. Looking at Hopkins’s directorial slate on IMDB–a number of his most recent works are made for television. The quick cutaway approach might be more forgiving in episodic TV, but in this film, it’s much too rushed.
When Hopkins did allow the camera to linger on the film’s characters, it brought about some innovative character development. “Race” is perhaps the first dramatized depiction of Leni Riefenstahl that has not denied this problematic artist her own agency. In a key scene with when Avery Brundage and Joseph Goebbels, Riefenstahl serves as interpreter. It’s very telling when Goebbels’s rather direct language on the discrimination of Jews and black people is translated by Riefenstahl as “racial politics.” This subtle scene signals that not only does Riefenstahl know of the racism and injustice by the Nazi Regime, she is also aware she loses her chance to film this big story if the Americans back out of the Olympic games in Berlin. For too long, historians and scholars of art history have treated Riefenstahl’s relationship to the Nazi propaganda machine with a certain academic ambivalence–often framing Riefenstahl merely as a talented woman of unfortunate circumstance.
Another movie moment worth noting is the dialogue between Owens and German athlete Carl ‘Luz’ Long (David Kross) after Owens wins in Berlin. Both men, athletes on the world stage representing two countries where racism runs rampant, ponder together which circumstance is really better. I had to pinch myself during this scene and ask “Whoa, did I just witness a representation of intersectional and multidimensional masculinity in a sports biopic?” (Answer: Yes, and more please!).
Watching the end credits, I was encouraged by acknowledgements to the Owens family. I certainly left the theater wanting to know more about Jesse Owens beyond Berlin (I highly recommend viewing “Jesse Owens: This Is Your Life” on YouTube). To me, that is a sign of cinematic success: thoughts of the man who ran for freedom in every sense stayed in my mind long after the movie ended. 3.5 Cosmic Afros.