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Race: Film about sprinter Jesse Owens soars above race and anti-Semitism

Stephan James as American sprinter Jesse Owens in Race, which successfully reveals that the story of Owens at the Berlin Olympics is not, in the end, black and white.

Entertainment One Films

2.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse
Directed by
Stephen Hopkins
Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons

At first blush, the story of Jesse Owens might seem perfect material for Hollywood: The good guy is the young black runner who won four medals for the United States at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, thereby exposing notions of Aryan superiority for the fantastical nonsense they were. And the bad guy would be Hitler himself.

But, if you examine the material more closely, it presents big stumbling blocks for a filmmaker, and it is a testament to director Stephen Hopkins and his two British screenwriters, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, that the new movie Race is largely successful in manoeuvring around them – even if the final results feel rather formulaic.

First of all, you can hardly make a film beating up on the Nazis for their increasingly virulent anti-Semitism in the years before the Second World War when your hero is a black man who hails from a still-segregated United States. From the start, Race is straightforward about the racism Owens encountered at home in the 1930s. Sometimes, it uses predictable encounters, such as the one with the white football players who figure it's their right to use the showers first, posing yet another test to the remarkable good humour of the young Jesse (Stephan James). Sometimes, wisely, Hopkins offers no comment, as Owens takes his seat at the back of a bus or lowers his eyes in front of a white man.

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Then, there are the historical controversies and unresolved questions that still hang over the American team's participation. The film neatly covers the debate around boycotting the Games, with William Hurt as the Olympic official Jeremiah Mahoney, representing the high-minded call to protest against Nazi human-rights abuses. Jeremy Irons plays his nemesis, the engineer and developer Avery Brundage, who makes the familiar argument that politics shouldn't mix with sports.

Race is surprisingly sympathetic to Brundage, considering the allegations of anti-Semitism made against him throughout his life and his dubious reign as president of the International Olympic Committee in the 1950s and 60s. With his usual knack for playing dislikable characters, Irons turns the crass American into a patrician figure. He effectively creates a cool and calculating character, all too ready to believe Nazi whitewashing during a fact-finding mission to Berlin, asking merely for assurances the authorities will clean up evidence of their anti-Semitic campaign for the big event.

But when two Jewish runners are mysteriously removed from the U.S. relay squad at the last minute, Race portrays Brundage more as a man who has been outmanoeuvred than one who lacks all scruples.

And for a real villain, who needs another depiction of Hitler? He's barely seen here; instead, we get Goebbels, excellently created by Barnaby Metschurat, as an almost monosyllabic and exclusively German-speaking predator evaluating each situation and every adversary through narrowed eyes while Carice van Houten's ebullient Leni Riefenstahl bops about, her English translations and her movie camera at the ready. Hopkins presents her complicity with Nazism with the same matter-of-fact tone as he does American racism.

As the hero, James is a sweet thing, rather too sweet. True, all accounts suggest that Owens was a notably sunny individual, but James, the baby-faced Canadian actor who did, after all, grow up performing on the multicultural Degrassi, makes him a character of such youthful innocence you have to wonder where the guy finds the grit to win. Toronto actor Andrew Moodie has an excellent small role playing Owens's taciturn father, a man defeated by joblessness after the family moved north, but as the younger Owens, James shows no marks of that hardship.

Owens is described as a natural runner, his naive record-breaking is a source of almost comic relief here, and he gets one of his too-few moments of toughness when coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) tells him that he knows he can run but asks if he can work. In reply, Owens describes picking cotton from the age of 6. Hopkins films all the races with suitable élan – since Owens was a sprinter, accomplishing his feats in a matter of seconds, they are relatively easy to dramatize – but you don't leave the theatre with much understanding of how he did it.

So, it's up to Sudeikis to provide the heroic backbone here and explain the sport, all of which he does sympathetically, but the story of the former runner who blew his own chance at greatness now vindicated by his protégé is one area where the film becomes mired in cliché. Having managed Berlin rather gracefully, Race often plods along the home front.

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The film does successfully reveal that the story of Owens at the Berlin Olympics is not, in the end, black and white. Still, it can't possibly address the question that inevitably hovers over his victory: What if America had boycotted? Would it have made a difference?

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