The story of Jesse Owens — the Ohio State University track and field star who went on to stunning the world (and especially Hitler) by winning four gold medals in Nazi Germany’s 1936 Berlin Olympics — is definitely the stuff of dreams, as well as movies. This inspiring tale of an African-American athlete who made his mark on the planet just as the winds of war were gathering now has been made into a feature film with Stephan James as Owens. As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), he is fine, but unfortunately the script by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse lets him — and us — down in not portraying but just sketching what Owens really went through both before, during and especially after those famous games. There is a very compelling story to be told about this man and those times, but Race only gets past a couple of hurdles in trying to do that.
In fact, the first half of the overlong 134-minute film is downright dull as we see Owens traversing the landscape of a largely segregated era to become an NCAA track and field star as well as his up-and-down relationship with childhood sweetheart Ruth (Shanice Banton), who eventually became his wife after they had a child. There is also much made of his bonding with his Ohio State coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudekis), who goes all the way to the Olympics with Owens and seems to be much more complex than the man who is the center of this drama. Director Stephen Hopkins drags it all out in typical paint-by-numbers biopic fashion until the fireworks start and the movie starts to actually move once it gets into those 1936 Games and the political issues behind them.
Jeremy Irons turns up as Avery Brundage (eventual head of the IOC), who fights to keep the U.S. from a threatened boycott of Hitler’s games, while William Hurt has a brief role as his main adversary, urging America to stay home. Of course, a boycott is exactly what Hitler did not want because he wanted to use these games to show the world — and America — who was superior. He, along with the menacing Joseph Goebbels (a cold-as-ice and excellent Barnaby Metschurat), even brought in top filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Game Of Thrones‘ Carice van Houten) to document the whole event in what became a world-famous film, Olympia. Although her questionable role in all of this does not paint her in the best light historically, this film actually makes Riefenstahl somewhat heroic and defiant. It works here for dramatic purposes but ought to have historians concerned about the portrayal’s accuracy.
What Hopkins and his team get right is a very fine re-creation of the games and a powerful reminder of the impact one man can have, even in the shadow of much bigger worldwide events about to take place. James is a fine actor and believable as this star athlete, but he always seems to be skimming the surface in search of a three-dimensional portrait that never comes. The supporting cast is fine, as is the film overall, if you are in search of a kind of CliffsNotes retelling of a remarkable historical event and a great man, who in real life never again knew the heights he was able to achieve that summer of 1936. I just wish there was more to chew on.
Do you plan to see Race? Let us know what you think.