Race tells the inspirational true story of the legendary African-American athlete Jesse Owens and his journey to Olympic glory at the 1936 Berlin games. It begins in dusty, depression era Cleveland where Jessie Owens (Stephan James) is doing his road work, before departing for college. He is every bit the clean-cut athlete, but with a quiet edge of determination about him. At college his athletic prowess impresses put-upon track and field coach Larry Snyder, played with charismatic gusto by Jason Sudeikis in a worthy departure from his typical comedic roles.
As Jessie’s athletic ability affords him success and status among his peers, politicians and Olympic officials argue in New York hotels about whether or not to participate in the forthcoming Olympic games in Nazi occupied Berlin.
There is plenty of meat on the bones of these particular subjects. The double meaning encased in the title reflects the unnecessary and disgusting segregation of people of colour that not only the Nazi regime, but also the segregated United States of the time were more than happy to propagate. It also incorporates the race involved in track and field.
The story questions the validity of the Nazi ideals of Caucasian superiority and the comparable discrimination of African Americans in a deeply divided nation. The racial abuse that Jessie received on a daily basis is slowly diluted by his extraordinary athletic feats and fame. Owens was used very much as a pawn: caught in the middle of the politicking Olympic officials and his own people’s struggle for acceptance and basic civil rights. In one of the most poignant scenes in the film, Owens is visited by a representative of the NAACP, whose heartfelt pleas not to participate in the forthcoming Olympics only add to Owens’ conflicted state.
Jessie Owens story is an inspirational and important one. The producers have opted for journeyman filmmaker Stephen Hopkins: the visionary director of A Nightmare On Elm Street 5, Lost In Space and Predator 2, to visually realize this tale of a pioneering athlete.
The look of the film is quite polished. The period costumes and locations are rendered adequately. In the second act, Hopkins employs CGI that looks terribly fake and televisual; yet it just about manages to pass muster. He does manage to squeeze as much tension as one can from 100 metre sprints and long jumps that are over in mere seconds. Chariots Of Fire cleverly milked the racing action by making the most out of slow-motion running, long before Baywatch almost became soft-core porn. Rachel Portman’s suitably understated score compliments the triumphant moments.
Carice Van Houten is excellent as Hitler’s favoured filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, making her a sympathetic character who is driven from her artistic motivations more than any loyalty to the Nazis. Her sparring with an unblinking Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) adds welcome tension and grit to proceedings.
Jeremy Irons gives a strong performance here as wealthy Industrialist Avery Brundage, who is tasked with negotiating the U.S. Olympic teams participation. He is slithering and apparently untrustworthy figure, but Irons’ sneering performance paints his character in welcome shades of grey. Brundage is neither fish nor fowl.
The heart of the picture is the bromance between Jessie and Coach Larry. The two men overcome initial awkwardness to form a strong bond that helps each man to achieve their somewhat stifled ambitions.
There is not much new in Race. We have seen this sort of thing before, most recently in the excellent 42.
The story only covers the years 1934-36. Jessie Owens story did not end until his death in 1980. Perhaps Owens’ life story would be better served in a mini-series. The budget in Race seems to have been quite limited, yet the director has done a workmanlike job of reproducing the Olympic stadium and a Nazi occupied Berlin. He even manages to incorporate a stadium shot of an overawed Jessie Owens watching the Hindenburg Zeppelin overhead.
The performances are universally strong and lend the film a sense of gravitas that it just about deserves. At times, the film does have the feel of a television movie, but then again director Stephen Hopkins has worked extensively and successfully in that medium.
Thankfully we are spared any Downfall-esque histrionics from a wordless Hitler, that could easily have been mined. There is a sense of balance present, especially in the representation of Riefenstahl and German athlete Carl Long, that is refreshing and welcome. There is nothing unpredictable about this film, yet it does have an easy charm to it that made the two hours plus running time reasonably pleasant.
Race is on general release from Friday the 3rd of June.