Stephen Hopkins’s Race is a complication-smoothing take on Jesse Owens’s elegant riposte to Hitler’s racism at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where the legendary track star won four gold medals. The film’s hackneyed mode of storytelling is evident as soon as Owens (Stephan James) is seen heading off to college, with the expository dialogue suggesting bullet points accumulating on a PowerPoint presentation. In quick succession, the audience is informed that Owens is so poor that he has only one shirt, that his mother is sure he’s destined for greatness, that he’s the first in his family to go to college, and that he helps support not just his unemployed father, Henry (Andrew Moodie), but his young daughter, Gloria (Kayla Stewart), and her mother, Ruth (Shanice Banton), who he plans to marry as soon as he can afford to.
As Owens begins to set new records at Ohio State and train for the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee decides whether the U.S. should boycott a competition that Hitler intends as a showcase for Nazi ideology and technology. Throughout, Race spells out its drama in block letters, dialogue hitting every major theme and minor conflict, music swelling under each dramatic moment, and the camera lingering over a person’s name in a newspaper headline. The characters all look about twice as glamorous as their real-life counterparts, and almost all—including Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), a Nazi propagandist portrayed as a gallant artist making an honest attempt to capture a golden moment—are defined by just one or two traits, which are established early and reinforced often.
The film is a complication-smoothing take on Jesse Owens’s elegant riposte to Hitler’s racism at the 1936 Olympics.
Amid all that simplification, the film’s central character remains frustratingly difficult to get a handle on. As his Ohio State coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), makes clear, you don’t become a great athlete without a lot of hard work and determination, but the Owens depicted in Race seems perplexingly passive, so dependent on Snyder that he frets about going to the Olympics without him. Snyder often gets outraged by the racial slurs aimed at Owens, but Owens himself simply absorbs them calmly and with no apparent emotional fallout. Even the decision at the center of the story—whether or not to boycott the Olympics—seems like something that happens to Owens more than something he has to resolve for himself.
This debate is given plenty of screen time as the people around Owens—from Snyder, Henry, and Owens’s archrival, Eulace Peacock (Shamier Anderson), to the the head of the NAACP and Olympic Committee members—discuss whether and how to send Hitler a message and whether it’s fair to ask athletes to give up the chance of a lifetime to make a political statement. Owens ponders the question too, leaning first one way and then the other, but in the end he just packs his bags and heads off to Germany, leaving one to wonder what made up his mind. “Don’t think so much, Jesse,” Ruth advises him as he agonizes over the decision. “It’s not your strong suit.”
Race is on its surest ground when depicting the relentless racism Owens and his black teammates endured in their own country, from the race-baiting and bullying they put up with from Ohio State’s all-white football team, to having to travel to the Olympics in steerage while their white teammates bunked in first class. The actors’ body language, as in the wounded pride exuded by the near-silent, brooding Henry, or Owens’s wariness as he feels out his new coach, tamping down his anger at being called “a natural,” gets at how a lifetime of racist insults and assaults can lead to a soul-crushing sense of futility. In these brief moments, the audience senses enough of the truth of Owens’s powerful and largely forgotten story that the film’s otherwise heavy-handed treatment of his life and successes on the field almost redeems itself.