Film Review: Race

Serviceable biopic of track star Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
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A remarkable athlete, Jesse Owens battled against racism to become an international track star. Race presents his life in typical Hollywood fashion, eliding storylines, hitting highpoints, cramming in period detail, skimping on context and characterization. Serviceable instead of inspired, the movie will perform decently thanks to the magic of Owens' name.

Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse begin their script in 1933, as Owens (played by Stephan James) is entering Ohio State University. Some quick background shows his proud family, his young daughter, and his girlfriend Ruth (Shanice Banton). Owens meets troubled track coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis, sharp and serious), and within minutes they are talking about winning medals in Berlin.

A second plot involving Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), a leader of the American Olympic Committee, focuses on the conflicting politics leading up to the 1936 Olympics. Brundage travels to Berlin, sees Jewish persecution firsthand, but is persuaded by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) that the Germans will mount a fair Olympics.

The two plotlines alternate as Owens begins to win matches and Brundage, back in New York, cajoles Committee members like Jeremiah Mahoney (a barely used William Hurt) to send an American team to Berlin. Owens has a fling with Quincella (Chantel Riley), but wises up in time to marry Ruth. In Berlin, filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (a vivacious Carice van Houten) entices Goebbels into financing what would become her epic documentary, Olympia.

Events and details mount up, but director Stephen Hopkins often has to shoehorn material that doesn't fit into a plot that feels like a "greatest hits" survey of Owens' life. He trains, injures himself, has an affair, and apparently has little trouble winning at track. Cinematographer Peter Levy's go-to shot is Owens running full speed directly at the camera—not a very interesting angle to judge Owens against other runners.

Discrimination, racial and ethnic, lurks at the margins of the story, but the movie isn't sophisticated enough to deal with the subjects its raises. The filmmakers fight some worthwhile battles, but viewers can sense too easily how they will end.

What works best are scenes that don't fit into a sports formula. Van Houten plays Riefenstahl, a woman of monstrous ambition and talent, as a kind of fresh-faced ingénue, giving her scenes unexpected energy. Owens' friendship with German broad jumper "Luz" Long (David Kross) is modest and affecting. Metschurat overplays Goebbels' menace, but his scenes still provide insight into the negotiations behind the Olympics.

Some with long memories might object to the movie's treatment of Avery Brundage, in the film a warrior against prejudice, in real life a German sympathizer right up until Pearl Harbor. (Others may wonder exactly what kind of accent Jeremy Irons is attempting.) A bigger problem is Owens himself. Stephan James (a noteworthy John Lewis in Selma) got into impressive shape for the role, but has trouble finding a believable personality for Owens. His athlete is little more than a cipher, a symbol reacting to the world around him.

The emptiness at the core of Race is mirrored by the movie's generally weak visual effects. Crowd scenes, especially in Berlin, look impersonal, abstract. The movie almost throws away one of Owens’ greatest achievements, his performance at the 1935 Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor.

Still, Jesse Owens is one of our country's greatest athletes. If you don't already know his story, Race will be a good start.

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