“Race,” Stephen Hopkins’ vibrant biopic about Jesse Owens and his triumphs at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, has been accused of having an excess of ambition. The movie, some critics argue, attempts to tell too many competing stories and ultimately fails to present a clear narrative. Indeed, “Race” shifts between multiple storylines: Jesse Owens’ experience as a track star at Ohio State and his preparation for the Berlin games; his bond with his coach, a tough trainer who, despite his occasional blindness to the racism that Jesse is forced to endure as a black man in 1930s Ohio, forges a loving relationship with his protégé; Jesse’s efforts to provide for his fiancée and daughter; the deliberations of the United States Olympic Committee regarding the possibility of boycotting Hitler’s Olympics; and, ultimately, the greatness of Jesse Owens on the Olympic track in Germany, a superior display that carries far more weight than athletic victory. It is true that “Race” does not examine each of these threads with a thorough eye. However, claims that “Race” bites off more material than it can chew misunderstand the movie’s chief purposes. Stephen Hopkins’ biopic seeks, first and foremost, to be a work of crafty mainstream entertainment, and it does not delve too deeply into the movie’s social themes. Yet the structure of “Race” also suits its subject. By taking on multiple stories at once, “Race” pays tribute to a man who embraced a plethora of simultaneous responsibilities as a father, husband, student, ambassador, Olympian, teammate, mentee, mentor, and activist. The movie does not entirely succeed in clarifying the depth of Jesse Owens’ life experiences, but it does offer an exciting homage to a multifaceted American hero.
“Race” owes much of its entertainment value to the scenes at the Berlin Olympics. The depiction of Owens sprinting around the track, leaving his competitors in his rearview mirror, enthralls, mostly because it is a blast to watch athleticism at its peak, but also because Owens’ dominance throws cold water on Nazi racism. As Owens wins one gold medal after another, the movie cuts to the embarrassed reactions of Joseph Goebbels and his cronies, as the Nazi leaders fume over the fact that Owens foiled their plans of propagandistic success. Furthermore, the movie uses a unique visual style to capture the excitement on the track. The masses of spectators in the Olympic stadium are often portrayed frenetically, not as clearly identifiable individuals but as a sprawling wave of energy. The high-octane depiction of the Olympic atmosphere demonstrates the enormity of the moment, such as when Owens makes his first nervous steps onto the track and attempts to take in the crowd, and the exhilaration of athletic performance.
Most of the movie unfolds away from Berlin, in the years and months before Owens etched his name in Olympic history. The prelude to Berlin is less gripping than what follows, but it is still an assured and warm portrait of Owens’ maturation into a star. The success of “Race” depends almost entirely on the work of Stephan James, and the scenes away from the Olympics require an extra amount of agility from James in order to maintain viewer interest. James more than passes the test. His exemplary performance is reminiscent of Chadwick Boseman’s work in “42” in the way in which it transcends a basic rendering of an African-American sports and social icon. James invigorates the screen and makes the audience empathize with the ups and downs of his character. He provides power and originality even in spots where the screenplay lacks in those two areas. He also possesses a terrific rapport with Jason Sudeikis, the former “Saturday Night Live” standout who, in certain stretches here, exhibits Bill Hader-like emotional range.
“Race” is, despite criticism to the contrary, not an especially ambitious movie. It is a fairly standard entry into the sports movie genre. There are glimpses, though, of something more substantial. In terms of its visual and emotional energy, its freewheeling narrative structure, and the dynamic stewardship of its star, “Race” serves as a fitting tribute to a champion who has been underserved by traditional retellings of American history.