“Race” Movie Review


     The sports biopic “Race” tells the story of track star Jessie Owens and his experiences while training for and attending the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, Germany as the Nazi Party had begun to tighten its grip on the country.  Stephen Hopkins (“Blown Away”, “The Ghost and the Darkness”)  returns to the director’s chair after a notable absence from feature films the past 9 years in favor of a lengthy foray into television.  Working from a script by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, Hopkins covers an incredible amount of ground during a brisk 134 minutes.  The story features Jesse (played by Stephan James) as he makes his way to Ohio State and begins a storied track and field career that included numerous world records in both sprinting and the high jump, while facing the inevitable backlash against the success of black people due to their standing in society at the time.

     Hailing from Cleveland, Jesse leaves his family, his girlfriend, and his baby daughter, to attend Ohio State, located in Columbus.  Hopkins wastes no time staging the first scene signifying the intense hatred and racism ever present on what is mostly a white college campus.  As Jesse and his fellow teammate, Dave (Eli Goree), complete their workout, they arrive back to the locker room at the same time as members of the football team do, who all happen to be white.  Dripping with sweat, Jesse and Dave make their way to the shower, but are forcefully stopped by the white football players and told to wait their turn.  It’s a stark reminder of how ludicrous people’s way of thinking was at the time, which in turn makes you wonder just how much we have improved as a society when considering the issue of race. Have we at all?  The great ones in sports tend to find ways to deal with the adversity and scrutiny which comes from being a professional athlete and Jesse Owens may have been one of the first to conjure up a mantra that would see him succeed regardless of outside influence.  An example of this is one of the best lines in the movie when Jesse says “Out there, ain’t no black or white.  There’s only fast and slow.”

     It would be through no fault of your own if at first glance there was an assumption “Race” was a comedy.  This is because of the curious decision to cast Jason Sudeikis as Larry Snyder, the Ohio State Track coach and a mentor to Jesse.  To put this casting in perspective, it would be like hiring Jim Carrey for Gene Hackman’s role in “Hoosiers”, which would have been a terrible choice.  Now to his credit, Sudeikis is fine here, but a more polished dramatic actor would have greatly contributed to the many scenes in which Jesse is helped through some tough times and decisions while on his way to greatness.  And how great he was.  Hopkins successfully stages a number of epic sequences that feature aerial shots of famous college stadiums long before they became as massive and recognizable as they are today.  The challenge to ensure these scenes remain exciting, considering Jesse typically competed in the same two events each time, is met through the CGI creation of what would become The Horseshoe (Ohio State), The Big House (Michigan), and Lincoln Memorial Stadium (Nebraska), each filled with thousands of screaming spectators as our hero defeats his rivals.

     It’s when the film shifts gears to the controversy surrounding the Unites States participation in the 1936 Olympic Games that the story seemingly comes to a grinding halt.  This is where Jesse is courted by members of the NAACP in an effort to boycott the games, plus there’s also a significant subplot played out on screen involving the Olympic Committee’s vote in which veteran actors William Hurt and Jeremy Irons depict the leaders, Jeremiah Mahoney and Avery Brundage, who were most fiercely engaged in this intense debate.  The issue at hand was the overt developments in Germany, where Adolf Hitler had begun the creation of a country exclusive only to the “master race” and had said he would not allow Jewish or colored people to compete in the games.  Though necessary to tell the overall story, these scenes tend to bog down the proceedings and shine a light away from Jesse and the adrenaline rush the audience had become used to at that point as he dominated his sport.

     Nevertheless, the scenes in Berlin have a certain awe about them.  The recreation of the Olympic stadium and the Nazi hoopla which surrounded every moment of the games is not only a stern historical lesson, but also a telling visual account of exactly what athletes like Owens, as well as Jewish American competitors, were up against.  And like fellow sports biopic “42”, the story of Jackie Robinson’s rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, “Race” ensures the audience is well aware of the atrocities here at home, at a time when black people were told to use the service entrance to a hotel that was hosting a dinner for the very person society was blatantly disrespecting.  Through it all, James delivers a surprisingly even kiel performance, giving us a glimpse into a man who accomplished as much on the field as he did off of it.  GRADE: B