Predictable Jesse Owens Biopic Race Works Best When It Focuses on Its Subject


The best moment in Race comes about midway through the film, as young American athlete Jesse Owens (Stephan James) first walks into the 100,000-plus-seat Berlin Olympic Stadium, newly built by the Nazis for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Germany. We’ve seen glimpses of the construction up until this point, complete with ominous, martial music. The building is meant to be imposing, a symbol of the then-resurgent Reich, and it is. In one continuous take, we see Jesse walking in, his mouth agape at the immensity of the place, as the camera pans around the arena, taking in the sprawl of the crowd, before catching, way off in the distance, the tiny figure of Adolf Hitler taking his seat. We then continue to follow Jesse as he puts on his running shoes, digs a hole in the track with a trowel, takes his position, and waits for the starter pistol. But even though the camera shows us the crowd, we’re not really wowed with the scale or size of the stadium; any awe we may feel for the ingenuity or accomplishment of the people who built that place remains second-hand. No, the biggest thing on that screen is Jesse Owens. It’s a scene that encapsulates what’s best about Race, which works when it remains focused on his experience.

Directed by Stephen Hopkins, Race is, in many ways, a fairly staid and predictable biopic about Owens’s early career in college athletics and his triumph at the 1936 Olympics, where he won four gold medals, virtually thumbing his nose at the Nazis’ deluded visions of lily-white Übermenschen. The film’s early scenes show Owens arriving at the Ohio State University, contending with the racism of the era and learning to work with coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). These scenes are filled with sports movie coach-and-pupil tropes, with obligatory references to how Snyder himself lost out his chance to go to the Paris Olympics and whatnot. Still, there’s an interesting idea here, in Snyder’s belief that hard work and training are more important than natural talent; it’s a subtle rebuke to the notion of superior races. (“Me personally, I don’t trust naturals,” Snyder says. “They think they don’t have to work as hard as everyone else.”) But the script doesn’t take it much further than that, and Sudeikis’s performance never quite manages to transcend the character’s clichés. He’s his usual bland, inoffensive self here, minus any humor or irony or edge; we’re told Snyder regrets and maybe even resents the fact that he missed out on his big chance as an athlete, but we don’t really feel it. The young Canadian actor James, however, is something else. As Jesse Owens, he mixes confidence, bewilderment, and subdued rage into a powerful whole. It’s not a big, show-offy performance. Quite the contrary: He’s surprisingly quiet, watchful. Everything seems to be submerged, but still present.

We find little of that delicacy in the film’s several other subplots. Race also takes us backstage as the Americans debate boycotting the Olympics, and U.S. Olympic Committee head Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) negotiates with Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) over what can and can’t happen during the Games. Meanwhile, the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (played by the great Carice van Houten as a plucky artiste with little patience for authority or ideology) prepares to shoot her documentary about the 1936 Olympics, which she will turn into a testament to the physical wonder of the athlete. It’s interesting, watching Riefenstahl film the momentous Olympia in the midst of this whole other movie about the Olympics: There’s always something to be said for the gumption of a film that contains a major subplot about another, better film being made about the same event.

There’s a lot of tempering and whitewashing going on here. Riefenstahl, Brundage … these are complicated historical figures with complicated reputations, and the film presents watered-down, easily digestible versions of them. Even its portrait of that monster Goebbels leaves something to be desired; here, he’s not a character but a perpetual cold sneer. It’s not so much that the film should be humanizing these personages. But given the amount of time it does spend with them, one wishes Race offered up something beyond their comic book variations. Like so many other historical lessons, it winds up being a film of half-measures: It offers up just enough context and color, but not so much as to actually make you think.

Well, not entirely. Race does draw some uncomfortable parallels between the situations in Germany and the U.S. in the 1930s. There’s something electric when Jesse, visiting with the German athlete Luz Long (David Kross), whom he’s just defeated in the long jump, remarks that deep down, the racist U.S. doesn’t feel that different from Hitler’s Germany. “When was the last time you played 18 holes with a Jew, or a Negro?” someone asks in the midst of the American officials’ debate over whether to boycott the Games over the Nazi treatment of Jews. The question hangs in the air, and Race makes it clear that, in some ways, Germany’s madness is simply a more brutal manifestation of hatreds that know no borders. In rare moments like these, Race achieves the moral complexity that this fascinating story deserves. Would that it were this brave more often.