By Laurie Coker
Historical biopics hit and miss with audiences and sports films almost always lean toward the feel-good underdog narrative, but Jesse Owens’ story, as depicted in Race, plays on a balance of history and agreeable storytelling. More than just a snippet from the life of Owens’ himself, Race offers a tiny taste of Olympic history (associated with the Berlin Games) and the tale of friendship and sportsmanship in the face of hatred. While some might find the film historically soft-handed, a strong cast, excellent period depictions and rich characters, I enjoyed director Stephen Hopkins’s vision.
Race follows Owens’ (Stephan James) from the time he began at Ohio University and meets coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), who sees not only natural talent in Owens, but also desire, to just after his record making showing at the Olympics. Breaking many national and world records after arriving at OU, Owens under the tutelage of Snyder, earns a place in the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, Germany, but Hitler’s propaganda expert Paul Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) looks to keep Blacks and Jews out of the games. American businessman and US Olympic committee member Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) makes a deal with the devil of sorts for himself (and the USA team) and the AACP tries to convince Owens that it would be best if Jesse boycott the games. In the end, as we all now, Owen’s goes, wins three gold medals in his meets and a fourth for a relay from which Brundage pulls Owens’ Jewish teammates.
It is because of Owens’ story and James that Hopkins’ telling of this story rises above just average. Since the film only covers Owen’s from age nineteen to two years later when he returns from Berlin, we are spared too much plodding, but trivialities abound in screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse’s script. The story was written with the cooperation of the Owens’ family. Owens’, who died of lung cancer in 1980, had three daughters with wife Ruth (Shanice Banton).
James commits one hundred percent to being Owens, and Sudeikis is a real delight. They have excellent chemistry and manage to make gratifying some notably hokey moments in the film. Irons while perfect in his part doesn’t seethe the same palpable creepiness that Metschurat does, who makes an excellent, detestable, icky little man. The balance of the ensemble cast enhances the “awe-shucks” feel of the timeframe. If I am to find fault in the film, it lay the glossing over of a hatred-charged time in human history, besides a few tense moments in Berlin. With a two-hour plus run time, Hopkins lumbers at limes, but his stars shine and frankly, Race is pretty to watch.
Rated PG-13, Race, is tepid at best, but like a cooling bath, it has its benefits and plusses. Owens’ story is the focal point and not all the scary, superfluous history surrounding his amazing feats. I would like to note, too, that two scenes involving Jesse’s parents, his father in particular, brought tears to my eyes and that rarely happens – they are that moving. I am placing a C+/B- in my grade book for Race. Hopkins’ plays it a bit too safely.