True-life sports dramas have dominated movie screens in recent years. We’ve seen biopics on iconic boxers, golfers, horses, baseball, basketball, football, hockey and even cricket players. Now comes “Race”, the story of legendary track and field star Jesse Owens. The title has multiple meanings as this two-hour, 15-minute saga not only focuses on Owens’ life and historic feats at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, but on the racial tensions of the times, both in Germany and the United States.
Stephan James (in his first starring role following appearances in “Selma” and “When the Game Stands Tall”) gives a breakout performance as Owens, who attended The Ohio State University in the early 1930s and became a champion under demanding coach Larry Snyder (a rare “dramatic” role for “SNL” vet Jason Sudeikis). Snyder’s goal is to get Owens to the ’36 Olympics and have him win gold, something he failed to do during his career as a star runner.
One parallel story in “Race” involves the U.S. Olympic Committee’s decision whether or not to boycott the ’36 Games because of the oppressive anti-Jewish and anti-Black policies of Hitler regime. William Hurt and Jeremy Irons play officials on opposing sides of the debate. Their boardroom scenes, interspersed throughout the first two-thirds of “Race”, are so detached from the main storyline that it feels as if they belong in a completely different movie.
If you know about Owens’ life and the ’36 Games heading into “Race”, the film doesn’t provide much new insight. The narrative follows the typical sports movie formula by-the-book. However, I give director Stephen Hopkins credit for including an interesting subplot involving famed German director Leni Riefenstahl, who was commissioned by the Nazis to film the entire Olympics for a documentary that was supposed to become a propaganda film for the Nazi movement, but instead became a showcase for Owens. The tension between Riefenstahl and German propaganda leader Joseph Goebbels adds an interesting layer to “Race”. Her nearly four-hour documentary, “Olympia”, is regarded as one of the best documentaries ever made.
James is quite likable as Owens, but Sudeikis is a tough sell. I’m sure he hoped this would be a nice transition out of sketch shows and R-rated comedies, but his path to more serious roles is not going to be an easy one.
“Race” is certainly passable, but it’s simply too basic and not nearly as inspiring as others in this genre, including “42”, “The Express”, “The Blind Side” and even the fictional “Rocky” spinoff “Creed”. There was some legitimate thought put into the final scene – which is effective, albeit a little corny. If only the rest of “Race” had gotten the same amount of attention, it could have been a winner, instead of simply a contender.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Race” gets a C+. Bronze – not Gold.
Running Time: 134 min.