How unrivaled was Olympic legend Jesse Owens at the height of his career? Owens won four gold medals in the controversial 1936 Berlin Olympics overseen by Adolf Hitler, when he was there only to compete in three events; that’s how good he was. But Owens’ track and field resume is only a part of his tremendous story. “Race” is the perfect title for Stephen Hopkins’ crowd-pleasing introduction to Owens’ story, as it signifies both his athletic gifts and the overwhelming social hurdles he had to overcome to achieve such greatness.
“Race” is a lot like last year’s Jackie Robinson drama, “42”, in that it takes a fairly simple approach to a difficult personal struggle. That doesn’t mean the film is without power or significance; quite the contrary, actually. Owens’ story is one of the first great precursors to the upcoming civil rights movement, but it’s also the story of a man called upon to represent a country that hates him for the color of his skin. Played with great skill by the impressive Stephan James, Owens overcomes economic hardship in Depression-era America to attend Ohio State as part of the track & field team. Immediately he’s faced with prejudice from every direction, from his teammates and even the faculty. When approached by team coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), Owens must convince him he’s not just another lazy black guy. He most certainly isn’t, working multiple jobs to support his girlfriend and child in-between taking classes. Owens’ talent on the field shocks and amazes everyone, though, and it’s enough to get him the kind of leniency reserved for only the most special athletes.
The unusual (for the time) friendship between Snyder and Owens is the story’s beating heart. Snyder, who had been in a slump until Owens showed up, takes the young athlete under his wing and helps build him into a man worthy of being an Olympian. While painted in broad strokes, the relationship between the two is a thorny one socially. Snyder’s dealing with his own failures as a former track legend turned drunken hack, and doesn’t understand why someone of Owens’ gifts would ever consider not going to the Olympics. But that’s what he’s faced with when Owens is approached by the NAACP to boycott the games out of protest, not only of Hitler but of America’s continued racism. The best moments in the film are between Snyder and Owens, as they slowly learn to accept the other as a friend, something which doesn’t come easy to either.
Less convincing are the parallel stories running alongside Owens’ like a competitor in the hurdles. In an effort to chronicle the Third Reich’s athletic triumph, filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice Van Houten) set out to direct the legendary documentary, “Olympia”. As depicted in the film she’s pretty much unconcerned about Nazi ideology; she just wants to make a great movie. History doesn’t tell us any of this is true, and the film takes some awkward detours to paint her as being something of an Owens fan. And then there’s Jeremy Irons as ethically-compromised International Olympics Committee chair, Avery Brundage, who negotiated business deals with the Nazis and did everything he could to quietly undermine black and Jewish competitors. These are complicated characters and “Race” does not do complicated. Even Owens’ transgressions, such as an extramarital affair that became a public scandal, are papered over faster than the sprinter’s best time.
But digging into Owens’ personal demons isn’t what “Race” is setting out to be. It’s a film about his heroic accomplishments in a time when people like him weren’t thought to be heroes. As the film would later show, all of Owens’ medals didn’t change every mind about him. He still had to enter restaurants through the back entrance, even when attending a celebration in his honor. But he did manage to reach some people, and “Race” is a solid enough intro to Owens’ life that it could inspire greater research into the full extent of his impact.