If there’s a flaw to most biopics, it’s the fact that most try to go for a broader scope of an individual’s life than can fit in a two-hour timeframe. Thankfully, Race bypasses that trend by focusing on a two-year period of Olympic athlete Jesse Owens – from his freshman year at Ohio State through his wins at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Jesse Owens (Stephan James) arrives at Ohio State, only to find hostility and racism from many of those at the school. He finds a space at the school, though, when track coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) brings him on with two goals in mind: restoring Ohio State to its former glory in the sport, and heading to the Olympics. The two form a solid bond that goes beyond a mentor/protégé relationship, towards a friendship of sorts, as Owens trains and begins to tear through records in Ohio.
Simultaneously, the film shows the American Olympic Committee deciding whether or not to participate in the 1936 Olympics, set in a Berlin under the rule of the Nazis. With Hitler’s crimes just getting started, rumors were beginning to hit the international community. The voices for and against participation are channeled to Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), with arguments about the nature of athletic competition versus taking a stand against Nazi Germany coming into play.
The debates end up being recreated in Owens’ narrative; once America decides to attend, in a close vote, the pressure is then placed on athletes like Owens over whether he should boycott the Olympics over their treatment of minorities, or represent the United States at the Olympics. While the audience likely knows his decision, it’s presented as a legitimate struggle.
Race offers sympathetic voices to both sides of the debate between Brundage and Mahoney, and it raises the issue that Snyder can’t necessarily see some of the particular struggles Owens faces. The film’s sympathies stretch to include German athletes, and even filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, prominently shown making Olympia, her propaganda documentary about the Berlin Olympics. The film does draw the line, though, at its depictions of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, both depicted as monstrous men.
It’s solid material, and the approach of director Stephen Hopkins is similarly solid. Maybe it’s due to the events Owens played, which are frequently short, but there’s little to Hopkins’ direction that makes his races really stand out. One exception: when Owens first enters the Olympic stadium in Berlin, there’s a wide tracking shot that moves from Owens, throughout the stadium, and up into the sky where a blimp emblazoned with the Nazi swastika flies overhead. The shot manages to show the enormity of what’s surrounding Owens in a way the rest of the film fails to capture.
That’s not to dismiss Race entirely. It does a solid job telling its story, even if it tries to skim over some of the potentially unsavory details regarding both Owens and Snyder. But it doesn’t quite capture the story in a way that proves more vital, which is what this film needs.