Race isn’t so much a movie about the track and field superstar Jesse Owens as it is about his accomplishments, most notably the four gold medals he won at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Hitler-ruled Berlin. Played with a winning charm by Stephan James (John Boyega was originally cast in the part, until he landed a lead role in The Force Awakens), Owens is unfailingly likable, pleasant and easy-going — he seems incapable of any volatile emotions such as anger or envy. The movie portrays Owens as such a charming blank that when he gets busted cheating on his longtime girlfriend Ruth (Shanice Banton) with another woman, you just shrug your shoulders and think, “Give the poor guy a break!”
Like Brian Helgeland’s 42, which rendered Jackie Robinson in such saintly terms he didn’t register as a man, Race is more of a history lesson than a drama, told through a rear-view mirror that lets us shake our heads in relieved disapproval at The Way Things Used To Be. Owens doesn’t only have to suffer racial slurs as a student at Ohio State in 1935: He also has to stand up to the Nazis. The movie opens inside Owens’ home in Cleveland, as he’s preparing to head off to college. His kindly mother points to a scar on his chest, a remnant of life-saving surgery he had as a 5-year-old, and says, “God spared you for a reason.” Race has barely begun and already Owens has sprouted the halo of an angel.
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Later, he will fly like an angel, too. Director Stephen Hopkins, who previously made big-budget genre pictures such as Lost in Space and Predator 2, fares best when he’s recreating Owens’ athletic feats on the track, be it the collegiate meet in Ann Arbor in 1935 in which he set three world records (and tied a fourth), or the big show at the Olympics, where he made Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) glower with disapproval. Owens’ astonishing performance in the long-jump competition — his record-setting leap of 26 feet 8 inches would stand unchallenged for 25 years — is one of the best scenes in the movie, because it allows you to share the immense pressure Owens was feeling inside his head, the eyes of the world upon him.
The movie’s most potentially interesting plot strand — Owens’ indecision about attending the Olympics after being asked by the NAACP to boycott the event as a form of protest — is quickly resolved, like everything else in the film. Race isn’t a work of hagiography: There aren’t any dark chapters in Owens’ career that beg for a deeper exploration, although you could argue his life post-Olympics (he went broke and at one point resorted to racing thoroughbreds in front of crowds for money) would have made for a far more gripping movie.
But even on its own terms, as an uplifting and educational sports drama destined to be screened on DVD in middle school classrooms, Race is underwhelming. Subplots feel like padding — footnotes to be further explored in homework assignments. Carice van Houten plays Leni Riefenstahl, the controversial German filmmaker whose documentary Olympia would immortalize Owens’ achievements even though it was intended to serve as Nazi propaganda. Jeremy Irons is Avery Brundage, the International Olympics Committee president who opposed a boycott of the Berlin games in part to secure a lucrative financial deal.
And Jason Sudeikis plays Larry Snyder, Owens’ Ohio State coach and mentor, who barks nuggets of hard truths to his prized student to help him deal with the reality of the era’s society and marvels at how Owens manages to keep topping his own accomplishments. Sudeikis, a Saturday Night Live veteran who is expanding into dramatic films, invests the character with a gruffness and hard-nosed humor that is the epitome of a father figure: He’s everything to Owens his real dad was not. But he, too, remains a cypher. Race never delves under the skins of its characters, because they’re intended to be used only as symbols — reminders of an important chapter in history rendered quaint by this noble but patronizing movie.
Cast: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Shanice Banton, Eli Goree, Carice van Houten, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt, David Kross, Barnaby Metschurat.
Director: Stephen Hopkins.
Screenwriters: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse.
A Focus Features release. Running time: 134 minutes. Brief vulgar language. Playing at area theaters.