The title of a new historical drama works on two levels. On the surface “Race” is about Jesse Owens, the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history. It is the story of his early career and the Ohio State races that made him a legend but it is also about how an African American runner stared down Hitler and won.
The story begins 28 months before the 1936 Olympics in Germany. Owens (Stephan James) is a freshman at Ohio State University. As one of the few African American students at the school he faces daily indignities like not being allowed to use the showers until all the white athletes are finished.
Track and field coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) senses Jesse’s potential and trains the young man, refining his technique. “Everyone says he’s a natural, best they’ve ever seen.” The pair work towards a goal, the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. “If he works on his ‘start,’” says Snyder in a telling bit of foreshadowing, “you’re looking at a 1936 gold-medal winner at the Olympics.”
In the ramp-up to the games Owens smashes long-held world records, becoming a local celebrity and a natural choice to lead America’s entry in Berlin, but he has doubts.
“I heard they don’t care much for coloured folk over there,” he says.
“Don’t care much in Columbus either,” replies Snyder. “Is that going to be a problem?”
Add to that the enormous demands on him to win and pressure from the NAACP to stay at home and to show solidarity for the oppressed people of Germany and Owens is conflicted. Eventually the weight of race and politics are pushed aside—“Out there on that track you’re free of all of this,” says Owens. “There’s no black-and-white just fast and slow.”—and the rest, as they say, is history.
We all know pretty much how “race” will end so the trick for director Stephen Hopkins is to keep it entertaining along the way. For the most part he does, amping up the story with melodrama and an old fashioned story of triumph.
The racing scenes are effectively rendered and a sequence where Jesse learns to block out all the distractions brings the audience into the mindset of a runner for whom focus is the key to winning. Also, in the parallel story of the Olympics committee’s decision to partake in the games is a particularly chilling shot of the proposed Nazi Embassy next to the White House.
Melodramatic though the presentation, there is an undeniable gut-punch that comes along with the dramatization of inhumanity, whether it is the personal slight of Owens being called names on and off the track or the Nazis ousting Jewish families from their homes. Hopkins infuses both with meaning, using them to push the story forward.
It’s in the Synder character the movie stumbles. Sudeikis plays this tough-talking, hard-drinking excuse for an inspirational character with a kind of heightened reality that adds to the melodramatic feel of the film.
Stephan James remains at the heart of the film, steady and strong able to convincingly play the athlete and the man.
Ultimately “Race” isn’t really about race or, specifically racing. It’s about sportsmanship and the ability of sports to cut through personal prejudices of all sorts. As a sports movie it gets less exciting when it leaves the track but as a story of human determination and will it earns a gold medal.