Most people know the CliffsNotes version of Jesse Owens’ biography. They know the African-American track star won a bunch of medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and poked a whole lot of holes in Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy.
As you would expect, the complete story of his life was a bit more complicated than that and the new movie “Race” does an excellent job of portraying the complexities of this man and how his victories on the track not only sent shockwaves through Nazi Germany, but through his racially-segregated home country as well.
The movie stars Stephan James as Owens and begins with his humble beginnings in Depression-era Cleveland. Jesse is the first member of his family to go to college where he attends Ohio State and joins the track team.
Jesse is a raw, electric talent, but under the tutelage of his coach and former track star himself Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis in a solid dramatic turn for the comedic actor), Jesse becomes a national sensation.
But even as he is smashing records, Jesse has to deal with racial tension on campus and the strain in his relationship with his fiancé Ruth (Shanice Banton) and the little girl they have together.
While Jesse’s impending place on the U.S. Olympic team is without question, the games themselves are in doubt.
The American Olympic Committee is split as prominent member Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons, sporting a questionable accent) pushes for the United States to attend the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, while chairman Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) wants to boycott the games in protest of the divisive and hateful policies of the Nazis.
The committee sends Brundage to Berlin to meet with Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) in an attempt to wrangle a few concessions from the Nazis that would make U.S. participation more palatable to the Americans.
Jesse finds himself under pressure not to attend the Olympics in condemnation of not only the racial bigotry of the Nazis, but to draw attention to the segregation and discrimination taking place in America as well.
The stakes are impossibly high for a footrace, but what makes Owens an American hero is how he rose to these challenges while never compromising what he believed was right.
“Race” is a rousing film packed with applause-worthy moments you’ll find in all of the best sports movies. Director Stephen Hopkins expertly wrings all of the drama and tension you can get out of 10-second races and the single-take of Jesse entering the arena and running his first race in Berlin is masterful.
Credit is due to screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse for finding the complexity in this story and in Jesse’s motivations. There are layers to this movie you won’t find in your standard biopic.
“Race” is everything you would want from a movie of this sort. It has a topical energy, a rousing spirit of triumph and it is a fitting homage to one of the great sports figures of the 20th century. “Race” is gold-medal worthy.
“Race” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language.