Starring Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis and Jeremy Irons
Three out of five stars
"Race" is a Jesse Owens biopic, focusing on the legendary athlete’s run-up – pun intended -- to the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany.
A wonderful young actor named Stephan James plays Owens, and he does everything right. Also good is "Saturday Night Live" alum Jason Sudeikis as Owens’ track coach at Ohio State, Larry Snyder. There’s great casting all around, but mediocre and sanitized writing does nothing to make this relationship nearly as compelling as it should be. And that’s the underlying problem with the entire movie.
Let’s face it: any well-constructed drama of Jesse Owens’ story would elicit a visceral, emotional reaction. It’s one of the greatest sports stories of our time. And in this time of Black Lives Matter and #OscarsSoWhite, we would have been better served with a more focused, grittier narrative of an earlier time where race was a far more tumultuous topic than even now, abounding with lessons easily applicable to our current climate.
Alas, what we get instead is a nice set of performances that are a faint echo of a powerful story -- a black man from a racist America who goes to Nazi Germany to represent that country in the Olympic games, where he destroys Hitler’s master race ideals by winning four gold medals.
The set pieces in "Race" are impressive. Not so impressive is director Stephen Hopkins’ handling of key elements, like Owens’ training, the Olympic committee’s debate on whether or not to boycott the games, Olympic committee member Avery Brundage’s (Jeremy Irons) trips to Nazi Germany to negotiate U.S. participation, and Owens’ relationship with his wife. It all has the feel of a Lifetime movie instead of a major motion picture.
Even so, Owens’ story is so inspirational that "Race" still manages, in bits and pieces, to overcome this sanitized, populist narrative.