Directed by: Stephen Hopkins.
Written by: Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse.
Starring: Stephan James (Jesse Owens), Jason Sudeikis (Larry Snyder), Eli Goree (Dave Albritton), Shanice Banton (Ruth Solomon), Carice van Houten (Leni Riefenstahl), Jeremy Irons (Avery Brundage), William Hurt (Jeremiah Mahoney), David Kross (Carl 'Luz' Long), Jonathan Higgins (Dean Cromwell), Tony Curran (Lawson Robertson), Amanda Crew (Peggy), Barnaby Metschurat (Joseph Goebbels), Vlasta Vrana (St-John), Shamier Anderson (Eulace Peacock).
As inspirational sports movies about race goes, Stephen Hopkins’ Race gets the job done. It raises questions about America’s history of racism, while at the same time, wrapping everything up in a way that allows the audience to leave it in the past if it wants to. This is not a movie that tries for contemporary relevance – which is somewhat disappointing, given what is going in America right now. Yet, the movie knows what it is, and who its audience is, and delivers exactly what it promises. Aside from its bizarre take on Leni Riefenstahl (which I’ll get to later), Race is a feel good, inspirational sports movie – and all that implies.
The movie focuses on a few years in the life of Jesse Owens – but seems to compress time so that events happen much quicker than they did in real life. When we meet Owens (Stephan James) he is already a talented track and field athlete, leaving his home in Cleveland, for the University of Ohio, where he will be coached by Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) – a one-time star athlete at the same school, whose career is on the line, since he cannot seem to win. Owens is his ticket to success – and he knows it. The two develop a quick bond together – Snyder helps the already phenomenally gifted Owens get better – and Owens wins for Snyder. For the outset of the movie, everyone has their eyes on the 1936 Olympics in Berlin – Owens seems like shoo-in to win multiple medals.
In the few scenes where the film is not concentrating on Owens and Snyder, it’s centered on Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), a wealthy industrialist, and part of the American Olympic committee. He clashes with Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), who thinks America should boycott the Olympics, given that they’ll be hosted by Hitler and Nazi Germany – but Avery argues that he doesn’t care about the politics – he just wants America to win. He travels to Germany – and doesn’t particularly likes what he sees – but draws some assurances from Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) that things will be better when the Olympics are actually going on. At home, Owens has his ups and downs – a dalliance outside his committed relationship that has already produced a daughter, throws him off for a little bit – but he recovers. But then, Owens isn’t sure he should go and compete in Berlin. Wouldn’t that mean that he silently endorses what Hitler is doing?
The movie hits on all of these notes, but doesn’t really examine them too closely. Ultimately, the movie almost sides with Brundage, while at the same time making him a villain, in arguing that sports is sports – and you owe to yourself to use your gift. Yes, the film also makes a point of showing how Owens success at the games was a humiliation for Hitler and the Nazis – but any victory seems rather hollow given what we know would happen next.
Then there is the film’s bizarre presentation of Leni Riefenstahl – played, quite well, by the Dutch Carice Van Houten, best known for audiences here from Game of Thrones, but who should be known more for Paul Verhoeven’s masterful Black Book – a morally complex, and ridiculously entertaining WWII thriller. For those who don’t know, Riefenstahl was the amazingly talented German filmmaker, who made Hitler’s propaganda films for him – most famously Triumph of the Will (1935), and then Olympia (1938). The films are both brilliant on a technical level – Olympia especially, which contains some remarkable footage of Owens. Yet, they also undeniably espouse the Nazi viewpoint, and whitewash Hitler and everything he stood for. Riefenstahl was unrepentant for the rest of her life – as seen in the wonderful documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1994) (which unfortunately I have been unable to track down – I saw it on VHS when I was in high school, and not since) – she offers some rather unconvincing defense of her work, claiming she was never a member of the Nazi party, there is no mention of Anti-Semitism in her films, and she didn’t know what Hitler’s plans are – she was just a young artist, working in a vacuum. This doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny – but Race pretty much takes her at her word. If there is a hero in Race aside from Owens, its Riefenstahl – who stands up for her art, and even, at one point, defies Goebbels, in order to get footage of Owens winning once again. I understand a little whitewashing is to be expected in a film – but Race really goes too far with Riefenstahl.
Overall though, I rather liked Race. What can I say – I’m a sucker for the inspiration sports movie, and Race is that. The music swells, Owens runs, and it’s a thing of beauty. Stephan James acquits himself nicely as Owens – making the icon human, and Sudeikis (unsurprisingly) is adept at drama in the of Snyder. The film probably too long – it’s run over two hours – but I wasn’t bored by it (although, your mileage may vary, depending on your thoughts on the genre). Race doesn’t reinvent anything hear – and I find its depiction of Riefenstahl laughable – but it delivers pretty much exactly what you expect it will.