Most know Jesse Owens as an Olympic gold medalist and record-setting track star. But it took more than physical strength to overcome the discrimination he faced as a young black athlete in the United States and abroad.
The biopic "Race" — made with the support and cooperation of Owens' family — has some flaws, but it succeeds in bringing dimension to an American icon and reminding Hollywood of the richness of untold stories outside the white male mainstream.
Ambitious in scope, the film tracks Owens' rise from college freshman to Olympic hero, while also telling the story of the U.S. Olympic Committee's debate over participating in the 1936 games in Nazi Germany.
There's so much going on that the script by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse ends up feeling like a Cliff's Notes-look at a significant period in history. It follows Owens' relationships with his wife, his coach and his main competitors. It shows strife within the American Olympic committee and hints at unscrupulous negotiations with Nazi officials. And there's a subplot about a filmmaker documenting the games for the Nazi regime, which hoped the competition would prove its theories of a superior Aryan race.
At the center of the story, though, are Owens (Stephan James, subtly introducing himself as a capable leading man) and coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis in a convincing dramatic turn). They meet in 1933, during Owens' first year at Ohio State. Snyder, once an Olympic contender himself, recognizes the young athlete's gifts immediately and insists he prepare for the 1936 games.
Meanwhile, a powerful member of the U.S. Olympic Committee, real estate developer Avery Brundage (the always excellent Jeremy Irons), was facing off with committee president Jeremiah Mahoney (an underused William Hurt) over whether the U.S. should attend the Olympics at all. Mahoney wanted to boycott the Berlin games in protest of the Nazi persecution of Jews. Brundage insisted sports had nothing to do with politics. He goes to Berlin to meet with Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels (unflinching German actor Barnaby Metschurat), and threatens an American boycott unless Jewish and black athletes are assured fair treatment.
Back in Ohio, Owens thrives under Snyder's tutelage, enjoying local fame as Ohio State's record-breaking runner. But he struggles to support and stay committed to his future wife, Ruth (outstanding newcomer Shanice Banton), and their baby daughter. The already overstuffed script unnecessarily introduces a potential romantic rival, but it does allow for an excellent scene at a beauty shop for Ruth to deliver the kind of cold dismissal any scorned woman would appreciate.
It's unclear if any such rival really existed, and filmmakers acknowledge playing loose with some facts.
Though interesting, the subplot about filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) documenting the games feels extraneous. Owens' story is more than enough to fill the film. It's too much, really. "Race" only touches on the friendship between him and his German Olympic opponent, Carl "Luz" Long (David Kross). A champion long-jumper, Long was to be the Nazis' ultimate symbol of Aryan perfection. He resists such characterization and befriends Owens, who ultimately beats him to win gold. The two defiantly linked arms in the Olympic arena that day and remained friends throughout their lives.
Directed by Stephen Hopkins, "Race" suffers at times from an overly earnest tone that veers into after-school-special territory. Though James and Sudeikis share some poignant moments, they also have some painfully corny exchanges. An often heavy-handed score doesn't help.
For all its flaws, "Race" is still an enjoyable and worthy film. Like most sports biopics, the story of Owens' athletic achievements is naturally inspiring. It's great for the cinematic landscape — and countless aspiring track and field stars — for his story to receive the Hollywood treatment (though "Race" is actually a Canadian and French production). Most valuable, though, is its reminder that the hate personified by the Nazi regime — the same racist hate that forced Owens to use the service entrance to attend a dinner in his honor after the Olympics — remains a deadly scourge that would erase future champions.
"Race," a Focus Features release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "thematic elements and language." Running time: 135 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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