No one could accuse Race of being great filmmaking. Director Stephen Hopkins merely goes through the paces, plodding when he needs to sprint, and has a better record on TV (24, Californication, House of Lies) than he does with such movie drool as Blown Away, Lost in Space and The Reaping. Luckily, Race boasts a great subject to pin a movie on. He’s Jesse Owens, an Alabama-born athlete from Ohio State University, who went on to win four gold medals in track and field at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. His triumph left Hitler to suck it up and watch a black man shatter his cuckoo theories of an Aryan master race.
The film, starring a fine, fully-committed Stephan James (Selma) as Owens, only follows the athlete’s life from age 19 to his Olympic victory two years later. We’re spared the biopic clichés, though banalities litter the script by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, done with the cooperation of the family of Owens, who died of lung cancer in 1980.
Race doesn’t disguise the fact that Owens cheated on Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton), his later wife and the mother of his three children. But the movie doesn’t hit a groove until the Ohio State training scenes with coach Larry Snyder (a first-rate Jason Sudeikis). Snyder preps Owens for the world stage and handling pressure from the NAACP to boycott the Olympics because of Hitler’s rabid racism against Jews, blacks and other minorities. The film stops for a debate between American Olympic committee president Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), who advocates staying home, and industrialist Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) who does not. Brundage carries the day. But Owens must debate with himself to make the right decision as an athlete and a black man. It’s a footnote, but a still pertinent one nevertheless.
Nothing lights a fire under Race like Owens’ arrival at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, where the filmmakers were permitted to shoot. The crowd scenes are epic in scope, showing the heat on Owens to represent in spite of bigotry coming from all corners. Also on view are the cameras of filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), brought in by Hitler to capture Third Reich athletic superiority but finding its glory in Owens, on view in peak form in Riefenstahl’s classic documentary Olympia.
Race is at its best when it fills in the corners of a story we only thought we knew. We expect Hitler to resist personal contact with Owens. But FDR offers a greater shock back home when Owens is not even invited to meet the president. Without diminishing the accomplishments of Owens, the film reminds us of our blinkered history with race and the hurdles still ahead.