PLOT: The true story of Jesse Owens (Stephan James) who overcame prejudice to compete – and win – in the infamous 1936 Olympic games in Berlin.
REVIEW: There are very few Olympic stories as stirring and heroic as that of Jesse Owens, which is why it’s crazy that it’s taken eighty years for him to finally get his due on the big screen. While it lacks the heft or artistry a director like Spike Lee (who flirted with making a version of his story for years) might have brought to it, RACE is nonetheless a solid, upbeat sports saga that should please the same audience that made 42 a hit a few years ago.
At the very least, RACE will no doubt help star Stephan James breakthrough in the same way Chadwick Boseman did as Jackie Robinson. A twenty-two year-old Canadian best known for being on Degrassi: The New Generation, James carries RACE and makes for a convincing, complicated Owens. The danger of these films is that three-dimensional historical figures often get their rough-edges shaved-off in favor of heroic biopics, and while James plays Owens as a man of integrity and courage, he stops short of making him a saint. He plays Owens as flesh-and-blood man, making his victory all the more affecting.
Likewise, director Stephen Hopkins (THE GHOST & THE DARKNESS, LOST IN SPACE) has wisely kept the focus on Owens, a good thing considering how good James is. Co-star Jason Sudeikis gets a significant part as Owens’ coach and friend Larry Snyder, and he fares well-enough, although he lacks the charisma James brings to his part. As such, he’s not allowed to dominate despite being a bigger name. The only time James is offscreen is during some early scenes giving context to the considerable drama surrounding the games. Jeremy Irons plays industrialist Avery Brundage, a real figure who fought against a proposed boycott of the games despite Nazi Germany’s persecution of the Jews. Brundage is portrayed as a somewhat sinister, anti-semetic type, with him clashing with William Hurt’s more upstanding head of the American Athletics Association.
RACE’s big flaw is that too much time early-on is spent on the relationship between Snyder and Owens, with the Berlin games being limited to the second half of the film. While Owens and Snyder certainly did have a special relationship, the mentor/athlete stuff is familiar by now considering what happened once they got to the games. As such, it’s only when they get to Berlin that RACE really starts to work, with the real-life friendly rivalry between Owens and German athlete Lutz Long (THE READER’s Joseph Cross) being pretty compelling stuff. Carice van Houten is also very well cast as the infamous Leni Riefenstahl, who was chronicling the games for the Nazis with her film OLYMPIA. Riefenstahl is largely played as sympathetic and while the truth is more complicated (for that watch the excellent doc THE WONDERFUL HORRIBLE LIFE OF LENI RIEFENSTAHL) it’s interesting to see her depicted here (now that would make for an interesting WW2-era biopic for a brave actress willing to tackle a tough role).
Hopkins also deserves praise in that the movie doesn’t skim over the horrible racism Owens found himself subjected to throughout his life, even after he became a national hero. An affecting coda ends the film on a highly relevant note, giving RACE a bittersweet end that’s outside the norm for a conventional Hollywood biopic but also quite true to Owens’ experience. While RACE isn’t the big-screen epic Owens or the infamous ’36 games deserved (there was enough intrigue there to span a trilogy), it’s still a very solid ode to one of the greatest sports heroes of our time. It’s not an A+ Oscar-worthy sports tale, but it’s intriguing and definitely educational to a younger audience who may not be aware of Owens’ storied career.
|Extra Tidbit:||RACE was shot in Montreal. John Abbott College, which is where I went to CEGEP (Quebec pre-college program), stands in for Owens' alma mater.|