It’s one of those MCC traditions dating back to our humble beginnings nearly four years ago: if I see a movie in theaters, it gets an entry. My wife and I saw the Jesse Owens biopic Race near the end of Black History Month, but the requisite write-up kept getting pushed back as I let other topics cut in line to stall for time while I thought through what I wanted to type. Right now it’s down to its last hundred American screens, but with the home video release scheduled for May 31st, we can all pretend this is actually an advance review and I’m more of a DVD vanguard than a procrastinator.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Stephan James, last seen as a young Congressman John Lewis in Selma, headlines another important civil-rights history moment as record-breaking Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens. Raised in the same racist Ohio we last saw in the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 (highly recommended), Owens finds a series of blessings sending him to Ohio State University, where he slowly works his way through the athletic program until his unprecedented track-‘n’-field skills caught the attention of the right mentor. Enter former SNLer Jason Sudeikis in an extremely rare serious role as OSU track coach Larry Snyder, a cranky former athlete who sees something special in young put-upon Owens and has to teach him how to run even better, jump according to rules, and — in one of the film’s best scenes — focus on what’s in front of you while ignoring all the mindless racists circling around you and screaming epithets at volume 11 in your face.
There’s a little bit of “white savior” mixed in with the standard inspirational true story, but America’s major growing pains become a secondary consideration when Owens’ string of wins leads him on a straight path to the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to compete in the 1936 Olympics. One problem: that year’s competition was in 1936 Berlin, where the nascent Nazi regime was hoping the proceedings would give them a major PR push that would hopefully gloss over their anti-Semitic oppression issues and all the larger tyrannies they had in the works.
Thus must Our Hero decide: would the better man boycott the races hosted by the self-styled Master Race, or should he show the Aryans that competition and victory know no demographic limits?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Jeremy “Bitter Alfred” Irons is Avery Brundage, a bigwig inside the International Olympic Committee, who’s pushing for Owens to compete, albeit with mixed motives under the table. William “General Ross” Hurt is Brundage’s debate opponent, Amateur Athletic Union president Jeremiah Mahoney, who tries to make the case for politely telling the Nazis where they can shove their invitations. Among the two official Olympic coaches who think they’re better than Sudeikis, one is Tony Curran, a.k.a. Doctor Who‘s Vincent Van Gogh, and more recently the unhinged Irish Mob boss who comes at the Punisher in Daredevil season 2. Glynn Turman from The Wire has one scene as a rep for the NAACP whose message is surprisingly not what Owens wants to hear.
Meanwhile in Germany (spoiler: he goes for it!), Owens’ most personable competitor is David Kross, best known to five or ten American viewers as Kate Winslet’s underage boyfriend from the Best Picture nominee The Reader. In the movie’s most intriguing subplot, Carice van Houten from Game of Thrones is filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, best known for her Nazi propaganda oeuvre with notorious classics like Triumph of the Will. At the personal request of Adolf Hitler (onscreen here only in fleeting glimpses) Riefenstahl was charged with making a documentary about the occasion with an eye toward making the Motherland look awesome. She takes a keen interest in Owens as his fortunes rise because winners make a film a winner; and if her film’s a winner, then Germany’s a winner and Hitler looks even more winning for making it all happen. Or something to that effect.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Obviously racism is in full effect in the first half, from one dispiriting college track meet to the next. Each win helps put the American bigots and crowds in their place, but they never really shut up. Owens is no stranger to this treatment, but it’s the saddest when it’s coming from ostensible teammates. Collegiate brotherhood had/has its limits. But even some folks you’d think would be in Owens’ corner aren’t exactly enthusiastic cheerleaders. Sports-movie adversity can be the most discouraging kind until they start carrying in the trophies.
The balance shift slightly when Owens and Coach Snyder travel to Germany, where the Olympic Committee concessions have necessitated a takedown of all the overt Aryan signage and, to a certain extent, created an orchestrated backdrop for a country that acts much more tolerant of non-white guests than their own countrymen are back home. Two of Owens’ Jewish teammates might beg to differ — when behind-the-scenes chicanery blocks their participation, Owens forms a sort of alliance with them and tries to negotiate a solution somewhere on the moral high road with their input.
The biggest dichotomy Owens tries to address: do politics belong in sports? Or even vice versa? Every run, every leap across those stretching broad-jumps sands is for him a welcome moment away from all that nonsense. In those briefest of moments, he finds a kind of freedom.
And the more medals he accumulates, the more his German audience cheers him on, in greater unison than we ever hear from his homeland ticket-buyers. Hitler and his leading men, including a very chilly Joseph Goebbels (German actor Barnaby Metschurat), are not happy and not joining in the chants. History buffs are treated to one version of the famous story about how Hitler refused to put himself in a position of having to shake Owens’ hand; accounts vary, but this one lines up the pertinent details.
Nitpicking? The movie tries to cover the 1936 Olympics from so many angles that at times Owens gets nudged out of the spotlight while the white folks have their debates. Everything connects sooner or later, but not many sports films dwell so much on the drama of international backroom disputes, and not all of it is compelling.
The racing scenes have all the energy and suspense they ought to, though the one attempt at a fancy tracking shot falls flat from trying too hard. A nervous Jesse Owens walks out onto the Berlin field, where he’s surrounded by thousands of affordable CG spectators, then looks to a sky that’s blotted out by a very special CG cameo by a famous blimp consciously angling its superimposing nametag directly toward the camera as if to proclaim, “I’M AN EASTER EGG MAKING THE WORLD’S LARGEST WINK!”
Early on there’s a love triangle involving the woman he loves and another woman he meets on his college-sports travels. presumably to represent emotional struggles of the heart or whatever, possibly remnants from the early script drafts that covered his entire life before rewrites trimmed it down from a ten-hour running time. If you’re not a fan of love triangles, maybe fast-forward through those bits until you see Owens groveling for forgiveness. (And well he should.)
So what’s to like? The name of director Stephen Hopkins used to show up all the time in my ’90s popcorn-film experiences, with a long list of whiffs likes Predator 2, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5 (the one with the animated segment), the nearly forgotten Lost in Space reboot, and Blown Away (remember Tommy Lee Jones as an Irish bomber? with an “Irish” accent?). Hopkins was a major contributor in the early days of Fox’s 24, but this is my first time seeing him aiming for respectability and doing without genre dressings. He tries to keep a lot of plates spinning, some tackling racism head-on and some awfully fixated on those Olympic Committee stuffed-suit shenanigans.
For my wife the WWII buff, the Berlin scenes were all the best parts, particularly when Leni Riefenstahl has to report to her boss Goebbels. As played by German actor Barnaby Metschurat, Goebbels is a man who selects his words carefully and keeps his cutting remarks brief yet right to the throat. He’s there to represent Der Führer’s best interests and isn’t as nearly in love with the shooting, editing, or storytelling processes as she is. They’re on the same side, but not without their creative differences.
Negotiating with the Americans is likewise a necessary chore to further the Third Reich’s ambitious goodwill charade. Judging by the daggers he stares at them while his translators euphemize his sentiments, he’d rather have them all shot and take over the Olympics himself. Of all the hate-filled agitators on hand, more so than the rednecks and hatemongers back in the good ol’ USA, Goebbels is the most articulate, the most polite (albeit through the strains of diplomacy), and the most quietly seething with menace.
Except this isn’t supposed to be another Oscar-baiting movie-about-moviemaking. This is supposed to be Race for Your Life, Jesse Owens. As the fastest man alive in 1936, Stephan James has the soul-stirring confidence and the determination we need in a sports-film hero and in an anti-racism historical document. I normally can’t stand Jason Sudeikis in those R-rated comedies he loves best, but he finds his own way into the grizzled-white-coach archetype, balancing no-nonsense shouty drilling with cocky snark and just a touch of wistful, vicarious living through the student whose natural skills easily surpass the best he ever did in his own glory days.
Race was compelling enough that we non-sports fans enjoyed it even though I normally skip sports stories out of disinterested habit. I’m glad I found reasons to wander away from my beaten path for this one, regardless of my initial mixed thoughts. In times like these, looking back at today’s political climate during the current farcical election process and all the side stories that have tarnished it along the way, and dreading the even worse cautionary tales yet to come before Election Day, right now we need more upright examples like Owens to remind us what it looks like to have principles, to take a stand, and to win a hard-fought race on talent and good inner character.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Race end credits, but there’s a disclaimer confirming the International Olympic Committee didn’t endorse or approve their depiction here. As we’re finding out in this week’s Panama Papers headlines, major organizations don’t like it when you peek too far behind their curtains.