Though the film is due out in theaters this weekend, it’ll be a couple of years before “Race” fully arrives in its most natural habitat: resource-starved high school history classrooms. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Competently recounting a fairly can’t-miss historical episode — Jesse Owens’ Nazi-defying triumph at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin — and featuring a lead actor (Stephan James) who impresses in spite of a strangely underdeveloped lead role, Stephen Hopkins’ film offers a safe, middlebrow slice of history that beats a snoozy lecture any day. Making a few admirable attempts to complicate what could have been a standard-issue inspirational sports narrative, “Race” is better than it has to be, but not by too much, and it should be expected to compete, but not medal, at the box office.
Thankfully avoiding a cradle-to-grave summation of Owens’ life, “Race” fills in all the most pertinent biographical details briskly enough in the opening stages: his Alabama birthplace and Ohio hometown; his matriculation at the Ohio State U., where he emerged as a track-and-field phenomenon; and his long-term relationship with childhood sweetheart Minnie “Ruth” Solomon (Shanice Banton), with whom he had an out-of-wedlock daughter. What it doesn’t offer much of, however, is any real insight into what drove him to become the fastest man in the world. Great athletes frequently convey a degree of single-minded focus that can often be confused with blankness, and while James (cast here as the second major black-history figure of his young career, after playing John Lewis in 2014’s “Selma”) manages to build a fully empathetic character, the connection between the nice young man of James’ performance and the towering achievements of Owens’ athletic career remains a bit out of reach.
Written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, the script wastes little time in hustling Owens off to college, where he meets the school’s hard-drinking, slightly down-on-his-luck track-and-field coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). In spite of the de facto racism bubbling up on the margins — the entire Buckeye football team appears to be composed of aggressive bigots — there seem to be no issues within the integrated track team, and Snyder and Owens form an easy brotherly bond. As soon as Owens manages to tighten up his sloppy start off the blocks, he’s ready to tour the national circuit.
What follows is a somewhat spotty highlight reel of Owens’ rise to fame, including his famous performance at Ann Arbor, Mich., where he set three different world records in a little over half an hour. Though never really exploring track and field’s place in the national imagination of the time — nor the willingness of America as a whole to embrace a black celebrity — we gather that Owens has become enough of a public figure to merit a paparazzi photo in the national newspapers, which is how fiancee Ruth discovers that he’s hooked up with a glamorous big-city socialite (Chantel Riley) during a stay in Los Angeles, and even taken the woman on tour with him.
That Owens would confront temptation after his sudden rise to fame seems believable enough, but the film has spent so little time plumbing the depths of his character that we’re not sure what to make of this episode at all. Nor do we get much of a sense of his journey to manhood under his coach: There’s a bit of scolding going on when Owens picks up a minor injury goofing off with his buddies, but otherwise his relationship with Snyder is largely frictionless.
A more potent narrative thread, and one that the film seems far more eager to explore, arrives roughly a quarter of the way through, as internal bureaucratic debates reach a head over whether the United States should boycott the upcoming Olympics in light of the increasingly alarming behavior out of Nazi Germany. On the side of a boycott is Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt); opposing him is building tycoon and future IOC president Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons). Irons gives a performance of barely cloaked cynicism here, though he perhaps should have cloaked it a bit less; while he hardly receives a glowing depiction in the film, the real-life Brundage’s well-documented anti-Semitism goes weirdly unmentioned, even in the latter stages, when it should have become particularly relevant.
Meanwhile, Brundage’s diplomatic visit to Germany reveals another power struggle in that country as well, with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) fighting an internal battle with the spirited young filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (“Game of Thrones’” Carice van Houten), who has been appointed to capture the upcoming Games for prosperity and propaganda purposes. Riefenstahl is given a thoroughly sympathetic treatment here, which is sure to raise more than a few film-historian eyebrows. Yet it’s undeniable that she captured stunning footage of Owens at the height of his powers, and a more probing film might have tried to reckon with the degree to which the athlete received more admiring attention from Adolf Hitler’s favorite filmmaker than he might have from an American director at the time.
With its focus split among political struggles on both sides of the Atlantic, Owens’ romantic travails, and Snyder’s path to redemption through his bright young prospect (Sudeikis is perfectly adequate in this rare dramatic role, though there’s only so much he can do when confronted with such an exhausted character type), the film consistently risks losing sight of Owens himself. It’s not until roughly halfway through, when a representative from the NAACP shows up to implore Owens to boycott the Olympics, that we really get to see our protagonist grapple with a tough decision. And even then, we haven’t been let inside his head enough to fully understand what’s happening.
Perhaps there’s a certain difficulty in portraying the black American experience of the pre-WWII era in a modern context. Our collective notions of the path to black liberation are so centered on the civil rights-movement that it’s hard to remember exactly how different Owens’ era was — after all, the 1936 Olympics took place before Muhammad Ali had even been born — and Owens himself had a very complicated relationship with the more outspoken activist black athletes of the 1960s. Like Joe Louis shortly before him and Jackie Robinson a few years after, Owens was forced to play his emotions extremely close to the vest in public, and this can too easily give him the impression of a cardboard saint, forever turning the other cheek to the hatred around him. Hopkins’ film tries to walk a delicate line, allowing Owens his private moments of doubt and anger without modernizing him unduly, but too much of his thought processes remain inaccessible.
It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal Owens’ ultimate decision, and Hopkins’ film deepens both visually and emotionally once the whole cast arrives in Berlin. Shooting at the actual Olympiastadion (burnished, like all of the crowded stadia seen here, with a few too many obvious CGI touchups), the film captures Owens’ entrance onto the international stage with aplomb, circling his head with a long tracking shot as he takes it all in. (Though often falling back on standard period-piece gloss, Hopkins does dabble with a number of interesting techniques, including some quick cutting in domestic sequences and one entirely subjective locker-room scene.)
Owens’ athletic achievements at the Games — winning four gold medals, despite initially planning to compete for only three — are detailed effectively, and the film does dramatize Hitler’s refusal to congratulate the champion. (The exact reasons for this famous “snub” are still very much up for debate, and so the film wisely doesn’t speculate more than it has to.) It’s also at the Games that the film presents a bit more nuance than one might expect. Owens’ kinship with the enlightened German athlete Carl “Luz” Long (David Kross) is explored in considerable detail, and allows the film to confront the greatest irony of Owens’ story: that he managed to so publicly disprove Nazi ideals of Aryan superiority while at the same time representing a country that was hardly in the best position to critique them.