Myth, drama, history, excellence – there are many ways to describe the life and achievements of Jesse Owens, whose life lends itself to one of the most cinematic sporting stories. But it has taken 80 years for Owens’s most significant victories to translate to the screen in Stephen Hopkins’ smartly titled Race.
This is the 1930s, when America is still deeply segregated and where people of colour sit separately on the bus and battle for survival. Owens (Stephan James) is no different. His large family struggles to keep the house running. His father is unemployed. But Owens has an exceptional gift: he can run faster and jump farther than any man.
Owens’s talent takes him to Ohio State University, where coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), a former sprinter, moulds him into a winning package. The culmination of their combined work is to be exhibited in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but the event is fogged in politics. Hopkins spells out the political climate of the time, when race and racism meant the muddling up of sports and politics. Meetings of the US Olympic Association feature the liberal voice of Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), who is in favour of boycotting the Games. But the right-wing view represented by Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) lobbies in favour of America participating in the tournament.
Brundage plays negotiator between the American Olympic Association and Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) before the Americans decide to participate. But Owens must make his own decisions: should he support his community and take a political stand by boycotting the Games or participate in order to make a statement to Adolf Hitler?
Owens’s four gold haul in track and field in the ’36 Olympics was equalled only in 1984 by Carl Lewis, but beyond the records and medals, it’s his rise above discrimination and achieving respect for future generations of coloured athletes that’s worthy of note.
James looks and runs like an athlete, but fails to add the right emotional pitch to his character. You neither feel sad over Owens’s misfortunes nor elated by his achievements. It’s refreshing to see funny man Sudeikis in a serious role, and Irons adds gravitas as the businessman guided by commercial greed. Metschurat gleefully masticates in his portrayal of the sinister Goebbels.
At over two hours, Race feels like a mini-marathon, partially due to side plots that dilute the drama. The tension of the competition, usually the staple of sporting films, is sorely missing. You don’t get a sense of the rigour of Owens’ training and the enormity of his achievement, which is otherwise so well documented.