Race (2016)

Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Written by Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse

The Jesse Owens story is one near and dear to me, and should be to just about anyone else in Columbus, Ohio, or the United States in general for that matter. As a lifelong resident of Columbus, Ohio, my Ohio State loyalty runs deep, and Jesse Owens is one of our greatest heroes, which is why the university held a red carpet premier of the film earlier this week, featuring the star of the film, Stephan James, and two of Jesse Owen’s daughters, Marlene and Gloria. It is a great honor and a privilege to call Owens a son of Ohio and this was a great experience to celebrate the accomplishments of Owens on and off the track he so famously dominated. Even Michigan fans should be proud of Jesse Owens.

Race is a biopic by definition, but if you thought you were in for a fully detailed account of Owens’ life, then you came to the wrong place. Director Stephen Hopkins, whose television work over the last few decades has been impressive, returns to the big screen with this film, and focuses on a particular journey in Owens’ life. Jesse Owens (Stephan James) is the first in his family to go to college, where he competes on the track team under legendary coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), who pushes Owens to greatness. Leading up to the 1936 Olympics in Nazi held Berlin, Owens, like America in general, faces great pressure from Americans, who consider his boycotting the games an act of solidarity against oppression. However, Owens decides to participate and, in the face of Adolf Hitler, puts on a track and field performance to never forget, winning four gold medals.

What Race gets right is the sense of pride and competition within Jesse James. To capture the 30s Nazi era has become a cliche at this point in cinema, and I wonder how desensitized filmgoers have become to seeing the evil of Nazis to the point that it no longer seems real, especially in the glossy effects and cinematography of something like Race. The harsh reality of history is that it is real, Jesse Owens was real, discrimination in America was real, and the evil of Nazi was very real. Seeing a film based in fact, and one in which I am very close to personally, really drives home this fact, making the world in which this film lives all the more harrowing. But what always manages to shine through is Jesse Owens, as it should be. Stephen James delivers a good, though not great, performance in the lead role.

It is not an easy narrative to deliver, which is seen through the few clunky elements to the script throughout. In order to tell this story, context is required, which is what we get with Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), who are American Olympic committee members split over America’s participation in the games. Their scenes add context to the battle and pressure facing Owens, but they also distract from the main narrative any time the film cuts to these men discussing the politics. A likewise distraction is the inclusion of Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl, two Nazi propagandists whose necessary place within the story is not really earned until near the end of the film, when their context finally does manage to add to the story of Jesse Owens. It is a delicate balance to tell this story with enough context and enough focus on Owens himself. Hopkins and his screenwriters do a decent enough job, but don’t always manage to pull off an entirely fluent narrative.

Jesse Owens is a figure too important and too fascinating to deny, and as such, his story, as told in Race, is both entertaining and inspiring. There was much more to the life of this hero than the snapshot captured here, but there is no better tribute to the man than to depict his greatest accomplishment: victory in the face of the Nazi regime, who thought themselves and the Aryans superior to a common American black man. Elements of the film are standard fare, like Jason Sudiekis’ labored dramatic turn, but the sum of their parts when paired with the incredible true story of Jesse Owens creates a film worthy of your consideration; one which will bring thrills, awes, sentiment, weight and inspiration in equal parts.

*** – Good

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