From the moment he offered a passionate portrayal of John Lewis, in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, it was undeniable that Stephan James was going to be a star. There was a magnetism about him that suggested he was destined for big things. James confirms this once again with his exceptional turn as four-time Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens in Stephen Hopkins’ film Race.
Charting the rise of one of America’s greatest athletes, Hopkin’s film initially wears the garments of a traditional sports biopic before disrobing to reveal the rich complexities that lay beneath. Taking a greatest hits approach of sorts, the film’s briskly paced first half picks up just as Owens first embarks on his collegiate journey at Ohio State University. It is here where the audience gets to understand the budding friendship between Owens and his coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Set in a time when African-Americans faced racism on a daily basis, Race could have easily been another one of those “white saviour” stories like The Blind Side. However, Hopkins wisely ensures that Snyder never overshadows Owens in the film. Their mutual understanding of each other grows organically, and makes the adversities that Owens faces resonate that much more within his coach.
Though Owens and Snyder’s relationship takes center stage, the real heart of the film lays not in the pair’s humble beginnings, but rather in their destination. Race truly kicks into emotional high gear when Owens, after setting numerous records on the college circuit, has an opportunity to compete in the Olympic trials for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Enraged over the atrocities that the Jewish people are enduring at the hands of Hitler’s Nazis, the American Olympic committee find themselves at odds as to whether or not to send their athletes to compete in the games. Members like Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) push to boycott the games, while former athlete-turned-builder Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) argues that it would be an insult to the athletes if America backed out.
Inadvertently caught in the midst of a political power struggle, Owens is pressured by members of the NAACP not to compete. Seeing an opportunity to hold up the mirror of injustice occurring to African-Americans on American soil, by having Owens back out in protest, the organization believes that showing support to the Jewish people in Germany will only strengthen their fight for equality at home.
In highlighting the complicated spot Owens was placed in, the film offers a pointed commentary on race relations in America at the time that still feels extremely relevant today. It is hard not to watch Race and not reflect on the numerous times America has taken up the fight against injustice abroad while falling to address the plights of African-Americans at home. Hopkins hits this point home repeatedly by showing, take the final shot in the service elevator for example, that even in triumphant moments, racial hypocrisies plagued Owens every step of the way.
Although Race tries to squeeze in numerous plot threads, not all of them successfully, into its energetic running time, Hopkins and cast succeed in crafting a film that is thoroughly entertaining for audiences. Hopkins does a wonderful job of capturing the feel and subsequent tension of the games. Whether it is Owens wide-eyed astonishment entering the stadium, or the competition with German Olympian Carl ‘Luz’ Long (David Kross), the film hits all the right notes. Race even manages to make watching men compete in the long jump feel tense and thrilling.
It can be argued that the film’s stew features ingredients that could have easily been films in their own right: The power struggles between filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Game of Thrones’ Carice van Houten) and Nazi general Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat); the rivalry between Owens and Eulace Peacock (Shamier Anderson); the love triangle that Owens finds himself in; or the unholy and secretive alliance between America and the Nazi regime. However, Race still manages to be a delicious dish thanks in large part to the engaging performances by James and Sudeikis. They not only share great chemistry, but present the issue of racial injustice in an easily digestible manner. James, in particular, effortlessly balances Owens competitive, and at times cocky, fire with the vulnerability of a man who must constantly live in fear in his own country.
Race is an engaging tribute to a man who continually defied the odds and became an inspiration to a nation in the process.