You already know the story of former Olympian James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens. He lived a life after the Olympics, but all anyone can remember is his fateful turn at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. The film, however starts in the beginning, where Owens (Stephan James) leaves his parent’s cramped Cleveland home, for Columbus, Ohio and Thee Ohio State University. When Owens’ family left segregated, rural Alabama to resettle in the north; the thought was that the North was more tolerant, more accepting of migrant Blacks from the south. Compared to Alabama this was true, but Jesse still experienced resistance in school. Through it all, he managed to obliterate the competition on the way to the Olympic Games. If, they were to be held of course. Rumours about bigotry and internment of Jews in Europe began too big to ignore. Ironically the U.S. Olympic Committee threatened to boycott the games over the alleged anti semitism. Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) of the American Olympic Committee was sent to Berlin to investigate the claims.
Race covers familiar grounds in this biopic of Jesse Owens, which was a bit disappointing. I was hoping for some insight about what it was like to be black in Nazi Germany. How did the locals react? Most importantly, what happened after the games? As great as Owen’s performance was in Berlin, how did he spend his remaining 44 years, before his death in 1980? A few lines of text before the closing credits, spares us Owens’ middle class existence that wasn’t without controversy.
Though Race covers one chapter in Owen’s life, the film wasn’t as bad as I anticipated. The most important facts were accurately presented, but most moments were fairly dramatized. Stephan James and Jason Sudeikis did well as Owens and coach Larry Snyder, which was surprising. James, recently seen in Selma (2014) and the 2015 Canadian miniseries The Book of Negroes was more than capable of handling the leading role.
I get it. Race is the story of Jesse Owens and his triumph, but I wish the film had presented the story with more of a historical context. Throughout the film, Jesse is reminded of how his success on the track has greater implications for himself, his growing family and eventually his race, yet “Race” is clearly a double entendre to be released during the middle of Black History Month. In this Olympic year, on the 80th anniversary of the ’36 games; Race is an inspiring tale of courage, that’s mired in hypocrisy. Though Owens’ wasn’t the most quotable person, he certainly had opinions of 1930’s America. There’s a deeper symbolism that could’ve been applied to Race, but that would get in the way of a formulaic feel-good story.
Rated PG-13 @ 134 mins