Entertaining and sufficiently zippy for its 130 minutes, but too by-the-numbers in structure to allow the complex morals at its heart to really shine.
There’s a true, convincing love story at the heart of this biopic; but it isn’t the one between Jesse Owens (Stephan James) and Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton). It’s the one between Owens and his coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Buoyed by immensely charismatic, emotional and empathetic performances from the two, the relationship grows as many coach-player relationships do in sports movies: from an aloof coach with the optimistic, often outsider player, into mutual respect and then a true friendship. It’s standard stuff, but at its best Race makes it work like gangbusters. By the halfway mark, as coach and runner make the Transatlantic voyage to Berlin for the Olympics, a small gesture by Snyder to stay below deck with Owens cements their bond. In fact, it’s something of a surprise that both men can make it through the events of the film without actually kissing.
Race follows the true story of Olympic track and field athlete Jesse Owens, from the start of training at Ohio State University under the tutelage of Snyder in 1933 all the way to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. As an African-American, Owens faces discrimination in his own country – not to mention the Hitler regime – who see him as lesser to their visions of Aryan supremacy. Outside of the simple “Run-Win” mentality of the track, the film also follows the conflicts around race and racism that Jesse (and the larger American Olympic Committee) face through their decision to compete in a country where these issues are fascistic policy.
Although the message at the heart of Race appears simple at first (racism bad, duh!), there’s a truly intricate conflict which goes on in almost every scene – the difficulty of taking the principled, moral stance. Almost all the central protagonists are faced with these choices; their ability to take these small but powerful stances on their principles is empowering. It helps remind us that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards truth, justice, and equality. As Jesse struggles with whether or not to go to Berlin; he’s questioning whether he can do more good by standing against racism in Berlin and in his home through boycott, or by standing up as an example in Germany and in the U.S. – proving that his race doesn’t matter. It’s a weighty question, and we all know the historical answer – but Race’s smart consideration of the struggle is part of what makes it work so well. Later in the film, when German athlete Carl ‘Luz’ Long (David Kross) shirks the image of Aryan perfection that he’s being presented as by shaking hands with Jesse and competing in good sportsmanship, it’s a further model that we all have the chance to make the right or wrong choice, small as our actions appear. Jeremy Irons meanwhile, as the American Olympics’ Committee’s ambassador Avery Brundage, often makes the wrong choice for the right reasons, or the right choice for the wrong reasons.
Race traffics in complex morals, so it’s a shame that the script, by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, is so much more by-the-numbers in its depiction of Jesse’s life. Whilst it’s not as bad as a cradle-to-grave depiction would have been; the first half – though Stephen Hopkins’ direction keeps it zipping along and with a comic-book-like grandiosity and flair – is significantly lower on the dense morals, and lacks the weight that the whole of the Berlin Olympics have. Problematically, it also has loads of key character moments that are paid off later on, such as the aforementioned relationship between Snyder and Owens.
If Race was solely concerned with the proceedings of the 1936 Olympics, we’d be looking at one of the best sports films in ages. As it stands, with both James and Sudeikis giving incredibly charismatic and compelling performances, as well as director Stephen Hopkins’ welcome tendency towards flair; it’s a solid, often rousing crowd-pleaser.
Race, directed by Stephen Hopkins, is distributed in the UK by Altitude Film Distribution, Certificate PG.