Producer: Jean-Charles Levy, Luc Dayan, Louis-Philippe Rochon, Dominique Seguin, Stephen Hopkins, Kate Garwood, Karsten Brunig and Nicolas Manuel
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Writer: Joe Schrapnel and Anna Waterhouse
Stars: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Shanice Banton, Carice van Houten, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt, Chantel Riley, David Kross, Eli Goree, Jonathan Higgins, Barnaby Metschurat, Jeremy Ferdman and Giacomo Gianniotti
Studio: Focus Features
“Stop thinking so much,” his wife Ruth (Shanice Banton) remarks to Jesse Owens (Stephan James) at one point in Stephen Hopkins’ biographical film about the legendary black track star who single-handedly (or single-footedly) dashed Adolf Hitler’s perverse belief in Aryan superiority at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. “It’s not what you’re good at,” she adds to predictable audience laughs.
A similar opinion might be expressed—though in a less humorous way—about “Race.” The sledgehammer obviousness of the title’s twofold meaning only reinforces the picture’s lack of thoughtfulness and depth in favor of easy cinematic conventionality. The result is an uplifting sports story so old-fashioned that it seems more a product of World War II Hollywood than of the twenty-first century. Earnest and semi-hagiographical (like the recent “42” about Jackie Robinson’s breaking of Major League baseball’s racial barrier), it’s hard to dislike but at the same time easy to criticize for treating its subject in such glossy, sanitized terms.
The picture opens in 1933 as Owens, a genial Clevelander, is about to depart for Ohio State, leaving behind a baby daughter and his girlfriend Ruth, to whom he pledges to return. His natural speed catches the notice of campus track coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), a once-ranked runner himself whose team has fallen on hard times. What follows is essentially a tale of male bonding between the two, with Snyder becoming the mentor on whom Owens comes to depend all the way through his amazing four-gold-medal victory at the Olympics; Snyder even gets him a work-free job so he can make practice. The friendship is treated in semi-sitcom fashion, with lots of double takes and nods from Sudeikis, although he moderates his more overt comic inclinations for the most part.
As played by the likable James, who’s inhibited somewhat by the shallow script but is ingratiating nonetheless, young Owens endures racial taunts from members of the OSU football team but, under Snyder’s insistent tutelage, breaks no fewer than three world records at a 1935 Big Ten meet in Michigan. The script pauses to recount a career setback from a loss to another African-American sprinter, a fellow appropriately named Peacock (Shamier Anderson), and a rift in his relationship with Ruth caused by his dalliance with a rich girl (Chantel Riley) during a California trip, but his persistence finally pays off. By the end of the year he’s back to his winning ways and he and Ruth are married.
The Olympics are obviously the next step, but there are obstacles in Nazi policies toward minorities, Jews in particular, that led to calls for a boycott of the games. The picture emphasizes the last stage of the debate on the issue, where pro-boycott forces headed by principled Judge Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt, barely trying to act) are ultimately defeated by the group led by Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons, playing insufferably arrogant with relish). (The film does not, however, make clear that this final hurdle was overcome not at the American Olympic Committee, but the Amateur Athletic Union.) Even that does not settle matters, however, since Owens is pressured to refuse to participate by the NAACP, among others. Naturally, Snyder proves the deciding factor in his decision, though Peacock makes a contribution as well.
The picture culminates, of course, at the Olympics, where the film takes pains to depict not only Owens’ extraordinary accomplishments but also the racial bias he encounters from the Nazi regime—Hitler, who snubs him, and especially propaganda minister Josef Goebbels (grimly hateful Barnaby Metschurat), who has entrapped the greedy Brundage in a shady business deal he threatens to reveal to the world unless the American falls in line with his wishes. The loathsome Goebbels is, curiously, contrasted with director Leni Reifenstahl (Carice van Houten), who’s recording the games for her masterful propaganda film “Olympiad” and is characterized as a driven, open-minded artist often at odds with the cruelly bigoted minister. She’s only one of the obligatory “good Germans” on display here. Another is Carl “Luz” Long (David Kross), who not only advises Owens on the field in a famous display of sportsmanship but befriends him off it, expressing his disgust with the Nazi regime during a late night visit with the American. The picture closes, however, with a reminder that discrimination was prevalent in the United States during the thirties too, even against a man like Owens, who returned a national hero.
“Race” has the feel of a workmanlike cable docudrama—exactly what one might expect from a journeyman director like Hopkins, whose previous efforts include “Nightmare on Elm Street 5,” “Predator 2” and “Lost in Space” (though, to be fair, he also helmed the British TV mini-series “Traffic” and the cable film “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers”). Of course it’s on a larger scale than a television production would be, with Peter Levy, the director’s regular cameraman, taking advantage of some impressive Canadian and German locations (like the Olympiastadion) and the visual effects teams giving the game sequences a sense of grandeur, with huge computer-generated crowds shouting in the stands. Overall the film is visually solid, with good contributions by production designer David Brisbin, art director Jean-Pierre Paquet and costume designer Mario Davignon. But John Smith’s editing sometimes comes across as a bit too leisurely, and Rachel Portman’s score too often sounds uncharacteristically bombastic.
This is a movie, frankly, that’s saved by its subject, an important tale of a twentieth-century sports triumph that also reveals the dark socio-political realities of the time. Like a bland history lesson, it could be more imaginatively told, but while “Race” may not win or place, it can be described as at least worthy of the bronze.