Review: Jesse Owens Biopic Race Fails Before the Finish Line

6 minute read

You’d think it would be impossible for a biopic of a great athlete to be wholly lacking in muscle tone. But Race, which tells the story of Jesse Owens’ odyssey from running track at Ohio State University to winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, carries that dubious distinction—well meaning but lethargic, it barely has enough energy to hold the torch aloft. Directed by Stephen Hopkins (Lost in Space) and starring Stephan James (who played John Lewis, beautifully, in Selma), the picture lurches from scene to scene with little grace or momentum. Its goodwill is so apparent that you could almost forgive its awkwardness. But Race also takes some mysterious liberties with the facts, even beyond what you’d expect from a moviefied version of a real-life story. And instead of just being a movie in which racism is a key component (as it most certainly was in Owens’ story), Race practically turns racism into a major character, while failing to give us a sense of Owens as an individual. Especially in his later years, Owens was famously—and somewhat notoriously—apolitical, but Race presents him as a man who let events shape him instead of the other way around. It undermines his quiet, powerful achievements even as it strives to celebrate them.

Race begins in 1933, just as Owens is leaving his home in Cleveland for Ohio State University: He has a steady girlfriend, Ruth (Shanice Banton), as well as a young daughter, and he vows he’ll eventually be back with a wedding ring. At the university, it’s not long before track-and-field coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) takes notice of Owens’ gifts—and the Olympic games, to be held in Berlin, are just a few years away. But it’s not clear if the United States will even participate: As word spreads of Hitler’s ethnic-cleansing mission, some observers in the States move to boycott the games. Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), a construction czar and president of the American Olympic Committee, travels to Berlin to check out the scene, and to meet with Nazi officials (among them propaganda honcho Joseph Goebbels, played, with cartoonishly glassy-eyed menace, by Barnaby Metschurat). After a handshake deal that roughly translated to “Promise you’ll be cool about the Jews?” Brundage returns to the States and reports to Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), president of the Amateur Athletic Union and a strong supporter of the boycott, that the United States should send its athletes as planned.

Owens, of course, is ready to go, but even he’s pressured by various factions, among them the NAACP, to opt out. In the end, he decides it’s better to challenge the Nazis’ obsession with racial purity rather than shrink from it, and the four Olympic medals he wins on German soil—as a disgruntled Hitler looks on—prove him right.

That’s the barebones story told in Race, and the picture does have a few glorious moments: Its best sequence is the one in which Owens, at risk of being eliminated from the long jump competition after committing two of three allowable fouls, accepts a bit of technical advice from a German opponent, Luz Long (David Kross), whom he ultimately defeats. In fact, whenever people are moving (preferably fast), Race is pretty much OK, at least as a visual spectacle. It’s the talking that does the movie in: Race (written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse) doesn’t quite know what to do with the admittedly controversial Brundage, so it settles for making him seem rather reasonable at first, only to sink into further villainy as he’s dazzled and corrupted by Nazi glamour. But in the case of Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, the highly opportunistic Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten)—who compiled her footage of the games into the two-part documentary OlympiaRace twists history in a much more bizarre way. The movie presents Riefenstahl as so sympathetic to Owens, and the silent, simmering hostility he faced in Germany, that she comes off as practically heroic. In real life, Riefenstahl did capture some of Owens’ athletic artistry on film. But Race affords her moral principles that aren’t supported by fact: We see her translating heated conversations between Goebbels and Brundage, looking pained at their blind spots and shortsightedness. And the warmth she extends to Owens himself has the sheen of a manufactured Movie Moment. From what we know of Riefenstahl, she likely wouldn’t have been nearly as hip and relaxed about race issues as van Houten portrays her here, unless it directly served her own aims.

And where is Owens in all of this? By the end of Race, we don’t know much more about him as an individual than we did when the movie began. The movie fails to give some key contextual information: Owens was one of 18 African Americans who went to the Berlin Olympics, three times the number who’d competed at the Los Angeles games in 1932. What’s more, 10 of those athletes brought home medals, 9 of them winning in track-and-field events. The movie makes references to some of Owens’ teammates, among them silver- and gold-medal winner Ralph Metcalfe, but mostly, his victories seem to happen in a vacuum.

The fact that Owens was one of 18 athletes of color to compete in Berlin doesn’t lessen his achievements—if anything, it provides a richer background for them. Why is it not even mentioned in the movie? Yet in some ways, Race is all context—just not always the right context—and Owens gets lost in the swirl of the movie around him. At one point he’s seduced by a wicked city woman, but the affair is short-lived and handily dispensed with. We’re told, in a title card near the movie’s end, that the White House never recognized Owens’ achievements—a jawdropper that’s presented as an afterthought. We see Owens observing events around him, but Hopkins never shapes the drama in a way that clues us in to what he might be thinking or feeling; he doesn’t even address the idea that maybe Owens wasn’t sure how to feel about these events at the time. James does give his portrayal of Owens some quiet gravity, and his scenes with Sudeikis’ Snyder radiate warmth: The evolving loyalty and friendship between the two men gives the movie its few flickers of energy. But ultimately, Race, whose title has obvious multiple meanings, lets us down on too many fronts. It’s a dropped baton of a movie.

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