Race, directed by Stephen Hopkins, is the story of Jesse Owens (Stephan James) and his four track and field gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Owens’s triumph is remembered as a repudiation of Nazi ideas about racial purity and as an early blow in the struggle for racial equality in the States. A film about Jesse Owens, who came from humble beginnings in Cleveland to become a track star at Ohio State, should feel like a classic American story about the pursuit of dreams and the realizing of potential. So why does Owens at times feel like a supporting player in his own movie?
Race is in dialogue with itself about the degree to which politics and sports should intersect, and Hopkins (working from a script by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse) keeps cutting away from Owens to the place of the Olympic Games on the worldwide stage. It was an open question whether or not the U.S. should compete in Berlin at all, and the film suggests that the U.S. sent a team because Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) believed that giving athletes a chance to compete trumped moral objections to what the Nazis were doing. (William Hurt plays the leader of the pro-boycott forces and then disappears from the film.) Avery Brundage - a figure in the Olympic movement until the 1970’s - was no altruist however. Race paints Brundage as a man whose support for American athletes going to Berlin was for sale to Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat). Owens got a chance to win his fourth gold medal in a relay because Brundage removed two Jewish runners from the U.S. team to protect his own interests.
All of this detail would be a good deal more interesting if the script positioned Owens in contrast to Brundage, but Owens appears to have been caught instead between politics and his own opportunity for greatness. Owens already had a daughter when he started Ohio State, and he later married the child’s mother (Shanice Banton), but his most important relationship in the film is with his coach Larry Snyder (a miscast Jason Sudeikis), Owens decides not to attend the Games after being approached by a politician (Glynn Turman), but Snyder and others change his mind. In Berlin Owens threatens again to walk away after dealings with another coach, but he’s won back when Snyder is given access to the Games. Race certainly wasn’t released during Black History Month by accident, so the degree to which the film depicts Owens as not having a political consciousness is a surprise even if it’s true.
The other major historical figure in Race is German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), who here is portrayed as an artist struggling against government interference but who is more generally remembered as a brilliant director and Nazi propagandist. Characterizing Riefenstahl favorably serves no purpose I can think of other than to punch up the importance of remembering Owens’s medals, but it’s a bizarre choice nonetheless. Race tells a great story in fits and starts; it’s a film with a hole at the center - it doesn’t help that Stephan James is a bit blank as an actor - that speaks in slogans when human moments would have done the job.