Biographies rarely interest me. Far too often, they are sugar-coated, rose-tinted views on the individuals they are covering, without revealing anything new about the subject either. When the story itself is well known too, much of the dramatic tension is removed also as you know how it will all end.
Race does an admirable job retelling the story of Jesse Owens but it cannot avoid the aforementioned pitfalls.
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• Director: Stephen Hopkins
• Exhibition: 2D
• Rating: PG
• Run Time: 135 mins
The story begins with a young Jesse Owens (Stephan James) arriving at Ohio State University. The year is 1933. As history unfortunately shows us, racial bigotry was rife at that time and Jese experienced this first-hand and up-close. When he meets his athletics coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), they initially do not get on.
However, Jesse’s talent and Snyder’s harsh methods do bring them success. When they decide to take aim at the Olympics, they must also aim at Nazi-controlled Germany – as they are the hosts.
At the same time, we also get Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), an American Olympics delegate, who wants to boycott the event, as well as Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), who wants to proceed. The rest of the story progresses as you might expect. Owens is used by the US to make a point to the Nazis, but at the same time, he is not exactly treated like the superstar athlete he is in his home nation.
As the title of the movie implies with its obvious pun, Owens’ achievements on the track are as much of a focus as the racial bigotry he faces. However, the film doesn’t address this quite as well as I had hoped. We do see examples of what it was like in Germany at the time but the PG ratings seems to blunt some of this too.
At the same time, the movie introduces Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), the woman behind the now-famous Olympia documentary – showing the strong, good-natured side of her, without challenging her culpability in the regime. Equally, when Brundage agrees to keep Jewish athletes out of the US relay team, coach Snyder basically talks Jesse into making the selfish choice, and this doesn’t appear to be challenged.
Despite my issues with how the topic of race is handled, director Stephen Hopkins does manage to get great performances from the entire main cast. Stephan James is excellent as the talented athlete caught in the middle of an international engagement. Sudeikis and van Houten are superb supporting players too. Race is also shot well with the races themselves being highlights.
One of the biggest questions asked by Race is whether or not Jesse Owens should have participated in the 1936 Olympics. The movie largely leaves the final decision up to you the viewer, for better or worse. Thankfully, the hypocrisy of the US sending Owens to Germany to make a point about the Nazi’s bigotry, while Jesse himself is treated as a second class citizen at home is well delivered and just goes to show the courage and determination it took for him to compete.