Anchored by excellent performances from Stephan James and Jason Sudeikis, Race may not rewrite the rulebook for inspirational sports films, but its exploration of the racial and political tensions surrounding Jesse Owens’ four gold medals in the 1936 Olympic Games make it well worth seeing.
Helmed by journeyman director Stephen Hopkins (Predator 2, The Ghost and the Darkness) and featuring a relatively unknown James as Owens (James had a minor role in the popularly under-appreciated Selma) alongside the typically comedic Sudeikis (who plays Owens’ coach Larry Snyder), Race might not inspire much confidence going in, but it triumphs by fully embracing the moral complexities of pre-World War II America.
Hopkins plays on the historical context by echoing the stylistic tendencies of the time. Race is all warm tones, and the framing of shots and sets possess a Rockwell-esque, painterly quality. The camera, guided by Peter Levy, lingers over images composed with great care, particularly considering the film’s relatively low budget. Most notable is a four minute continuous-shot of Owens as he enters the Olympic stadium for his first event. The camera slowly and methodically circles the runner, honing in on his minute, personal anticipation while sweeping back to reveal the awesome scale of the Nazi facility as Rachel Portman’s understated score builds to a rare crescendo of tension as the race begins.
It is in moments like this that Race is at its best: capturing the tremendous weight of a particular moment in history focused on one man who must bear not only the racism of the Nazi regime but of his own country. Race may be old-fashioned in its straightforward heroism, but it thankfully never shies away from the tragic ironies of American bigotry. Owens, for example, experiences non-segregated facilities for the first time in Nazi Germany after traveling with the US Olympic Team in third class.
Hopkins seizes upon the opportunity to juxtapose the plight of both African-Americans and Jews, undercutting any easy sense of patriotism that may threaten to creep into the minds of viewers. For example, German track and field star Luz Long (David Kross) vents to Owens that his countrymen are no longer even ashamed of the prejudices they fuel before he asserts that Owens is lucky to live in America, implying that America is a country where such prejudices don’t exist. When Owens is forced to contradict Long’s naïve wishful thinking, the scene layers the painful ironies inherent in the dark racial history of our country, and Hopkins admirably brings this tension front and center.
Race can’t quite rise to the heights of the similarly-themed Jackie Robinson bio-pic 42, failing to match the 2013 film’s enrapturing depiction of the hero’s sport: the audience knows Owens runs, but never quite gets swept up in the glory of the act itself. It’s a minor flaw, however, as Hopkins delves into the thematic richness of the historical setting, even incorporating a subplot about the famed Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Clarice von Houten) and her groundbreaking documentary Olympia. Overall, Race is an intelligent, compelling and overdue tribute to an Olympian neglected and mistreated by his own country for far too long.