The 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin were Nazi Germany’s coming out party. It was Adolf Hitler’s moment to prove his Germany was far stronger than the Germany that barely survived World War I. More importantly, it was an opportunity to show the superiority of his “Aryan race.” It all came crashing down, however, when an African American track and field athlete from Ohio State won every Olympic Gold he competed for. This man proved Hitler’s philosophy false on the largest of international stages.
This man’s name was Jesse Owens.
Race chronicles Jesse Owens’ life from the start of his collegiate career to the games themselves. Starring Stephan James as Owens and Jason Sudeikis in his first dramatic role as Owens’ coach Larry Snyder, the film focuses on the challenges Owens faces both as a black man in pre-Civil Rights America and as an athlete struggling to balance his training with his personal life.
As someone who did not know anything about Jesse Owens or the 1936 Summer Olympics, I was the ideal viewer for this film. It successfully introduced me to an incredible athlete whose victory could not be more symbolic or cinematic if it tried. And yet, the film fails to match the remarkable nature of the Jesse Owens story. Instead of pushing the limits of what sport films could be, Race disappoints with dialogue that is awkward at its best and cringe worthy at its worst.
Beside dialogue, the film’s main weakness is its conflict. From the marketing, we know that Owens will participate in the Olympics. Because of that, I struggle to understand why Race spends so much time dragging out the question of whether or not Owens would attend the Olympics. While I am not saying it needs to be ignored all together, I do believe that the conflict was not worth spending so much time on since we know the outcome and do not feel any tension from his struggle. The film is at its strongest when in Germany. The director, Stephen Hopkins, does well in building Nazi Germany up as the terrifying threat we know it to be. When everyone arrives to Berlin, one cannot help but be wary of the potential dangers the characters might face. It is a shame that the film does not spend more time there.
Race’s shortcomings do not detract from Stephan James’ solid performance. If only he had been given stronger material and a better costar. Jason Sudeikis is not terrible as Larry Snyder, but his lack of subtlety causes him to overact. Hopefully the growing pains of his transition into drama will lessen with each future project. Carice van Houten threatened to outshine them both as Leni Riefenstahl. Where’s her film?
As most biopics do, Race ended with photos of the actual Jesse Owens, his wife and friends, with captions telling the audience of what became of them. Usually, I enjoy these epilogues because it makes what the audience just witnessed all the more real. But I was surprised by the number of characters the montage had left out.
Race is an okay movie, but Jesse Owens deserves an amazing one. If someone wants to learn about him, I would recommend a book rather than this film. Nonetheless, if someone runs across it on a streaming service and has a couple hours to kill, I encourage them to give it a shot.
Race was released on February 19, 2016.