"Race" focuses on a brief period of track-and-field icon Jesse Owens' (Stephan James) life. Beginning with his entry into The Ohio State University at the age of 19 in 1933, already an accomplished runner, screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse explore his relationship with his young OSU coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), and his journey to the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany.
America was locked in a depression and race relations were strained everywhere Jesse traveled, including the locker room of his own university. Although Jesse possessed an immense natural talent, he had to divide his time between practice and work due to his commitments to his family, girlfriend Ruth Solomon (Shanice Benton) and their child back in Cleveland. Recognizing Jesse's considerable potential to be an Olympian, Snyder arranges for financial aid so Jesse can concentrate on perfecting his running and jumping abilities.
But another obstacle to the Berlin Olympics was afoot. The American Olympic committee was divided regarding the United States' participation. Committee president Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) was against Hitler's oppressive regime and voted for a boycott. Another committee member, Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) was very much in favor of America's entry, and his voice prevailed.
Despite pressure from the NAACP to stay away from the games for racial reasons, Jesse made the difficult decision to board the ship bound for Germany with the rest of the U.S. team. This proved to be a fortuitous judgment which garnered him four gold medals, and completely angered and frustrated Hitler and his Aryan henchmen.
James gives a powerful and nuanced performance. Owens had to endure such great hatred and racism, and James manages to convey those emotions, along with maintaining Owens' dignity and easy-going personality. He and Sudeikis develop a believable relationship as athlete and coach. Their scenes together are well-written and ring true. They are able to be tough with each other and touching when necessary.
This is a big departure for Sudeikis to play such a straight dramatic role. But he does so beautifully, and his comic timing helps in a few of the funnier moments. Benton is perfectly subdued as Owens' childhood sweetheart, then wife. She has a strong on-camera presence and never overplays her role.
"Race" is an inspiring and entertaining movie. It's the first feature film about Owens and his remarkable accomplishments in the 1936 Olympics --- and it's long overdue. "Race" is rated PG-13 so it's suitable for older children and teenagers, and is an important illustration of racism at its worst.
Opinion: See It Now!
"Race" is yet another film where the outcome is well known, yet the story is presented with a high degree of palpable tension. It's also a genuine crowd-pleaser with sympathetic heroes and a true villain.
Jason Sudeikis joins a growing line of actors, known primarily for comedy, who have proven their mettle in a drama. He's exceptional as Larry Snyder, the long-time Ohio State track-and-field coach who instantly recognizes the Olympic potential of freshman Jesse Owens in 1933.
As one who believes you learn something every day, I was surprised to find out that "Jesse" is a derivative of Owens' real name, James Cleveland Owens. A relative referred to him as J.C., which quickly morphed into "Jesse" because of a grade school teacher.
Owens is played by Stephan James ("Selma"), and he does an excellent job of acting, gradually easing into a close relationship with his coach. James does an even better job of impersonating a track athlete at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, running both the 100 and 200 yard dashes, competing in the broad jump (now known as the long jump), and finally the four-man relay. That latter appearance swirled with controversy, as two Jewish relay runners were dropped from the race at the last minute.
Under Adolph Hitler in 1936, Germany was fully and openly persecuting Jews, i.e., "The Jewish Problem". Hitler's Germany was to be made up of a superior Aryan race in which Jews had no place. This mania infiltrated the Olympic games, where Germany initially announced that Negroes also were banned from competition. The U.S. threatened a boycott, led by Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt). But Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), a former Olympic athlete and future IOC president, after getting some concessions from Germany's Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, convinced enough members of the American Olympic committee to vote for participation, but only by a two vote margin.
Goebbels is portrayed by German actor Barnaby Metschurat. It's a quietly chilling performance, and when Owens wins four gold medals at the Berlin games, it's a triumph for democracy and a bitter pill for Goebbels, Hitler and Nazi Germany. One of the film's most stirring scenes has German broad jumper Carl "Luz" Long (David Kross, "The Reader", "War Horse") embracing Owens, and raising Jesse's arm in victory, after losing to him in the event. "Luz" paid a price for his defiance of the Nazi philosophy as he was placed in the front lines during World War II, and eventually killed.
Hitler, so confident of German dominance at the Games, employs Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten, so memorable in "Black Book"), to film the whole affair. But when it was obvious that Owens and the Americans were thwarting the Nazi plans, Goebbels orders Riefenstahl's movie cameras to be covered up, a move she defies by filming anyway.
Sudeikis and James share a powerful on-screen chemistry that drives the movie. Cinematographer Peter Levy captures the realism and emotional stress of Olympic competition. Actual footage of the Berlin games is sparingly included in "Race", a film that goes by rapidly despite its 134 minute running time. Amazingly, the closing credits reveal that Owens' accomplishments were largely unrecognized by America's political establishment until recently.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!