Highlighting the worthy American legend that is James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens, the new film “Race” may not roundly deviate from the tried-and-true sports film formula we have seen in dozens of films. Nonetheless, director Stephen Hopkins’s film radiates an impassioned heart that few other films of the sports genre can rival or surpass. In a present day of questionable athletic role models (and on the timely heels of Black History Month), this is the kind of film we should be sending buses of school students of all ages to instead of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle” movies.
Paraphrasing the genre blueprint, “Race” skips the sluggish cradle-to-grave arc to focus solely on the three-year span of Jesse Owens’s college track and field career beginning at Ohio State University in 1933 culminating in his historic accomplishments at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympic Games. Personified by relative newcomer Stephan James, Jesse is a gifted natural runner from Cleveland who turned heads at the national high school track championships in Chicago. Jesse chooses join the Buckeyes to stay closer to home in order to support his sweetheart Ruth (Shanice Banton) and their daughter.
The coach determined to push Jesse to the next level is former 1924 Olympian Larry Snyder, played by Jason Sudeikis. With newer training techniques, an arduous practice schedule, and a colorblind attitude, Coach Snyder demands winning and complete dedication. His efforts improve Owens to such a level that the sprinter breaks three world records in the span of 45 minutes at one Big Ten meet in Michigan. Snyder sets the next goal as the 1936 Olympic Games.
Difficult hurdles block a certain path to the Berlin Olympics on several fronts. As a black man of this era, Jesse experiences the full gamut of segregation, public hate, and bigotry. Beyond Jesse, dueling sentiments on the American Olympic Committee, in the form of leaders played by Jeremy Irons and William Hurt, weigh the option boycotting the 1936 Games in Germany as a politically-motivated stance to not show acceptance or support of ongoing Nazi oppression and their assumed position of racial dominance. When those obstacles clear, the stage is set for history.
Following the footsteps of Chadwick Boseman coming on to the scene playing both James Brown (“Get On Up”) and Jackie Robinson (“42”) in recent years, the use of a relative unknown like Stephan James allows his encapsulating performance to earn your investment without distractions or bias. He emanates the steady respect and dignity worthy of the historical figure placed on his shoulders. An unexpected supporting positive is Jason Sudeikis, playing far against his wiseacre modern comedian type to play an equally steady and engaging mentor. Both actors have to buy into much of the stock sports film formula, but they add spirited tint to their roles.
Showing off creative filmmaking, “Race” is painted with a gorgeous attention to period detail and history accuracy. Modern polish meets antique aesthetics beneath its Montreal locations. Spot-on costume and production design blends with CGI matte backgrounds to put you in the middle of the action on several levels.
“Race” builds to a proper peak with Jesse’s memorable performance in Berlin. Cinematographer Peter Levy delivers a dynamite, swirling, long-take camera shot from that encircles Jesse as he enters the colossal Olympic Stadium. You feel every inch of that moment’s enormity (complete with Hindenburg flyover) and athletic pressure as if you were Jesse himself. It sets the stage for an impressive third act that writes a legend. With full support of the Owens family and the Jesse Owens Foundation, “Race” is a stirring and winning accomplishment that earns its place as one of the best sports films of recent memory.
Lesson #1: Medals are greater than records— There’s a special mystique that comes with the Olympic Games and Coach Snyder tries to describe that to Jesse. He concludes that world records look nice on paper, but that Olympic medals are victories etched in time. Ask any amateur athlete and they will tell you the same measure as this lesson.
Lesson #2: The pressure of symbolizing an image— As a champion labeled the fastest man on the planet trying to prove himself in front of the Nazi regime of Aryan superiority on their home turf, Jesse has to handle the pedestal he is place on as an image and symbol of African-Americans. High expectations are placed on him.
Lesson #3: The commonalities of sportsmanship— “Race” is supported by a fantastic backbone of sportsmanship being shared by opposing athletes. True sportsmanship allows two people to be competitors at one moment and brothers of similar drive and spirit the next, regardless of race, background, language, or creed.