“Race” (2016) – The 2016 Summer Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro are less than six months away, and an unknown group of future Olympic legends will earn gold. Eighty years ago, an American legend earned gold in the most precarious of settings. Under the brooding uprising of the Nazi Party, Berlin hosted the 1936 Olympics during a religiously and racially-oppressive time, but Jesse Owens spoiled Hitler’s Aryan celebration and – in the process – became one of the most beloved United States athletes of all-time.
In “Race”, director Stephen Hopkins guides Owens’ story, beginning with his time at Ohio State University through his famous moments in Germany in a memorable – but flawed – biopic which attempts to cover a few layers, including racial tensions on international and individual levels. Not all of the movie’s threads completely work, but Stephan James is good as Owens. He delivers a believable performance by showcasing the sprinter’s strong moral center, athletic gifts and battle with racial hostility long before he competed in Europe. Even though Columbus, Ohio sits above the Mason-Dixon Line, Ohio State football players verbally hit Owens below the belt with numerous, eye-opening ethnic slurs, but his sometimes cantankerous coach Larry Snyder – nicely played by Jason Sudeikis – helps defend and support him.
The narrative places pressure on itself as well, as the movie volleys between Owens’ personal journey and the larger ramifications of the host country’s political beliefs. With an impressive supporting cast, including acting heavyweights Jeremy Irons and William Hurt, they cover America’s internal struggle to send an Olympic squad to the 1936 games. “Race” brings some visibility to the difficult decision to boycott or not boycott the Olympics and introduces Avery Brundage (Irons) as an interesting, key player in that choice.
Cinematographer Peter Levy made good decisions by successfully suspending our disbelief and pulling us into a magical time warp of the 1930s, when – during the Great Depression – magic was in short supply. The movie’s most stunning visual – by a mile – is Owens’ entrance into Berlin’s Olympic Stadium in which thousands of spectators deliver a collective Nazi salute to Hitler with a very famous aircraft floating overhead. Admittedly, however, some of the stadium scenes shot from above look a bit cartoonish via CGI, whether the structures sit in Ann Arbor, Columbus or Berlin. The opening scene, actually, in which Owens jogs in a modest Cleveland neighborhood, looks terribly fake as well, but these are smaller quibbles.
At the end of the day, “Race” is about Owens, and the film works best in a couple key places. First, any semi-student of history knows the overall race outcomes, but the film explores the drama behind them, including the bond between German jumper Carl ‘Luz’ Long (David Kross) and Owens. Interestingly enough, since Owens ran short races, the on-screen capture of his events sometimes do not completely translate into a celebratory, cinematic way. He finishes his races within a small number of seconds, and unfortunately, the drama sometimes does not take root.
Coach Synder and Owens’ relationship does take root, and Sudeikis and James share terrific rapport and deliver the most meaningful human relationship within the picture. One could easily argue that Owens’ marriage to Ruth (Shanice Banton) is the most important, but the film never deeply dives into their connection. The movie also covers Joseph Goebbels’ conflicts with filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) and Brundage. The additional themes attempt to bring a broader scope to the film but do feel unnecessary. The added stories seem to hover outside the lanes in this bronze medal-worthy movie about an important, gold medal-winning hero.