It’s an ever-so-apt single-word title that does double duty.
The title is “Race,” signifying that the picture is about the athletic accomplishments of Jesse Owens, one of the greatest American athletes.
On the track, during his glory years in the 1930s, there was no one who was his equal. Four gold medals at the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin and three world records broken in a single afternoon in a 1935 Big Ten Championship meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, attested to that.
“Race” is also a signifier of the societal hurdles he encountered before and after the Olympics as an African American in an America where racism was very much alive and an inescapable fact of life.
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And looming over it all was the symbolic significance of his Olympic triumph: a blazing refutation of the Nazi master race ideology delivered by Owens at a games that German dicator Adolph Hitler intended as a kind of coming-out party for a resurgent Germany, presented at his showcase Olympic stadium. While Hitler looked on, Owens rained on the fuhrer’s parade, and the whole world was watching.
Directed by Stephen Hopkins from a screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, “Race” is a well-made biopic about Owens at the Berlin Olympics and the events leading to his extraordinary accomplishment.
Stephan James gives a solid performance as Owens, and Jason Sudeikis is equally strong in the role of Larry Snyder, the Ohio State University coach who mentors Owens during his years on campus and accompanies the athlete to Berlin.
What the picture lacks is a certain spark. It’s a workmanlike effort that diligently covers a lot of bases — Owens’ complicated relationship with his wife, his friendship with a white German competitor, the shameful incident after the Olympics when he and his wife are ordered to ride a freight elevator in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to a banquet being held in his honor — but never achieves a transcendence that befits a figure such as Owens.
It comes close in one passage, where Owens agonizes about whether to refuse to go to the Olympics, as an NAACP official urges him to do. In that sequence, his will to compete is brought into direct conflict with the pressure to make a principled stand against the Nazis. His decision to go to the Olympics, arrived at after much searing soul searching, and his triumph there wind up making a statement no one will ever forget.
☆☆☆ 1/2 out of 5
Cast: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Shanice Banton and Jeremy Irons.
Director: Stephen Hopkins.
Running time: 2:14.
Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements and language.