Thursday 7 November 2019

Movie Review: Race (2016)

A biography of sprinter Jesse Owens, Race recreates events before and during the 1936 Olympics as one remarkable man stares down hatred and enters the athletic history books.

It's 1935, and promising black sprinter Jesse Owens (Stephan James) is the first member of his Cleveland-based family to head to college. He leaves girlfriend Ruth (Shanice Banton) and a young daughter behind and heads to Ohio State University in Columbus, where track and field coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) immediately spots his potential. Snyder fine-tunes Owens' technique, and despite rampant verbal racial abuse Jesse is soon winning track meets across the country and setting new records.

The 1936 Olympics in Berlin beckon, but Germany is in the grip of Nazi rule and propaganda Minister Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) with help from filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) wants to use the games to showcase the party's anti-Semitic and racist ideology. Members of the American Olympic committee, including Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), debate a boycott. And as the most famous black athlete in the country, Owens comes under specific pressure to withdraw as a political statement.

A mixture of biography and social history, Race is competent on both fronts. Jesse Owens' record-breaking achievements on the track at the Berlin Olympics are legendary, and so carry little dramatic tension. Director Stephen Hopkins and writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse therefore wisely expand the film's scope to capture the broader context of the Nazis setting the stage for the games as a demonstration of white supremacy, highlighting Owens' achievements in both winning on the track and delivering a powerful anti-prejudicial message.

The dilemma confronted by American Olympic officials, torn between punishing their athletes or taking a principled stand against twisted institutionalized hatred, becomes an intriguing subplot. The debate on whether to exert influence through engagement or isolation resonates across generations, and here includes Nazi tactics of minimal appeasement combined with business enticement also serving a useful entrapment purpose.

As for Owens' personal story, Race is a straightforward biography. Jesse's inspirational love for Ruth, reconfirmed after an ill-considered liaison, and the strong bond he forges with coach Snyder are the two pillars of his success. The racist taunts he endures at the University and at every track across the United States serve as a reminder of progress required at home not precluding the imperative to stand up to tyranny abroad.

Stephan James brings Owens to life with determined dignity, and Jason Sudeikis delivers a vivacious performance as Snyder, the coach finally finding a way to experience the glory he missed in his days as an athlete.

Hopkins finds a late moment of poignancy with German athlete Carl Long conjuring an unlikely bond with Owens when it matters most, a reminder of the difference between the German people and their rulers. But overall Race runs the distance with proficiency rather than excellence, the cinematic interpretation of an intrinsically inspiring story more middle of the pack than frontrunner.

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