“There’s no black or white, there’s only fast and slow,” says world-class runner Jesse Owens (Stephan James). “For ten seconds out there on the track, I’m free.” It’s 1935. At Ann Arbor, he’s tied the 100-yard dash world record — 9.4 seconds — and a year later, he’ll compete in the Berlin Olympic Games and become “the world’s fastest man.” That’s the story of “Race,” an historical bio-pic that covers three years (1933 to 1936) in Jesse Owens’ life.
As young Jesse Owens, Canadian actor Stephan James (he was civil rights leader John Lewis in 2014’s “Selma”) is convincing and appealing. Devoted to running, recruited in 1933 by Ohio State University, he bonds with his unorthodox OSU track coach Larry Snyder — well played by Jason Sudeikis — and learns from him how to run and, more importantly, how to block out racist noise, concentrating only on his foot race. That strong relationship between Owens and Snyder is at the heart of “Race,” showing an unusual inter-racial friendship that, in fact, lasted decades. Snyder’s mentoring character contrasts with Jesse’s own taciturn father, Henry (Andrew Moodie).
Others in the strong cast include Shanice Banton and Chantel Riley as wife Ruth and friend Quincella, women in Owen’s life, Jeremy Irons as duplicitous Avery Brundage of the US Olympic Committee, and Barnaby Metschurat as Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Carice van Houten is documentary filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, whose strained relationship with Goebbels is hinted at. “These are my games,” says Goebbels. “And this is my film,” Riefenstahl says. “Without it, your games will be forgotten in a year.” David Kross is German athlete Carl “Luz” Long with whom Owens develops an unlikely friendship.
“Race” is an earnest, well-made and straight forward bio-pic, portraying events, 80 years ago, about race, athletics and politics. Directed by Stephen Hopkins, from Joe Sharpnel and Anna Waterhouse’s script, it’s a compelling narrative, but reveals little about character back stories, so Owens’ inner life is mostly unexplored. “Race,” however, does address political issues in the US and Nazi Germany. “How can you justify competing in Germany when we’ve so much discrimination here at home?” asks a black reporter. And Owens struggles with his decision: “I have people looking at me,” says Owens. “I don’t care about those people,” Coach Snyder says. “You’re white,” says Owens. “You don’t have to.”
Rated PG-13 for themes and language, “Race” runs (as you might say) 134 minutes. Its story is important — and well told — so talk about it afterward.
See Jesse Owens “Race”
To Olympic glory —
Compelling bio-pic —
We should know his story.