Perfectly timed to coincide with Hollywood’s outreach for racial diversity, this biopic profiles America’s greatest track and field athlete, Jesse Owens, winner of four Gold Medals at the 1936 Olympics, where he’s faced with Adolf Hitler’s vision of Ayran supremacy.
Son of a sharecropper/grandson of a slave, Owens’ (Stephan James) story opens in Cleveland, Ohio, as he prepares to enroll at Ohio State. Read on…
Having been told that Jesse is a natural, Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) asks, “Can you win? What I mean by that: can you work?”
Work – and win – he does. At the 1935 Big Ten Championship in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Owens sets three world records and ties in a fourth – in roughly 45 minutes.
So it’s off to Berlin, as the Amateur Athletic Union’s president Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) urges an American boycott to protest Hitler’s racist regime, opposed by International Olympic Committee Chairman Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), who insists politics has no place in the Olympics.
There’s no black or white when you’re running, only fast and slow, Owens says: “For those 10 seconds, you’re free.”
There’s a bittersweet exchange between Germany’s long jump champion Carl “Lutz” Long (David Kross), who graciously gives Owens advice, noting his loathing of the Nazi agenda. And controversial German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Dutch actress Carice van Houten), whose two-part documentary “Olympia” displeasures Nazi Minister of Culture & Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat).
Written by Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse and directed by Stephen Hopkins, it’s an old-fashioned and conventional. The title signifies Owens’ sport and his African-American heritage, which forces Owens and his wife (Shanice Banton) to ride in a freight elevator to a banquet held in his honor at New York’s still-segregated Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
In 1990, when President George H.W. Bush posthumously presented the Congressional Gold Medal to Owens, who died in 1980, he acknowledged: “It was an unrivaled athletic triumph. But more than that, it really was a triumph for all humanity.”
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Race” sprints to an inspirational 7, a noble effort.