Jessie Owens will go down in the history books as an athlete who didn’t compete for long, but did something that took a stab at prejudices; he competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin that was under the rule of the Nazi party, an organization that considered people of color in the same tier as Jewish people. The Olympics have never supposed to be about politics, but when the games are set in a state with a controversial government, it’s understandable that people are going to take sides on what’s more important. Is it better to go to the Olympics for yourself or to take a stand with your country and protest?
And this issue was on Jessie Owens shoulders, who was already facing problems because of the color of his skin. These kinds of people deserve some form of immortality for making these moments happen. To him, this was simply taking his skill of sprinting and running with it (no pun intended) all the way to the top. The Olympics are for the best of the best, and Jessie Owens had the bad luck of competing in Berlin out of all possible years. Race chronicles that famous year in which Owens went to the Olympics.
Jessie Owens (played by Stephen James) is attending Ohio State University while caring for his family, fiancé Ruth, and his baby daughter. He had the grades to get into better schools, but he chose this college as the coach of the track and field team was Larry Snyder (played by Jason Sudeikis). Snyder happens to be a former athlete who nearly got to go to the Paris games of 1924, but is now having trouble winning matches with his current lineup. As a guy who wants the best of the best, the prejudices of color don’t matter to him, especially seeing how fast Owens is.
Owens claims several wins for his school, giving him leverage to join the 1936 Olympic team. There is pressure from the public for the U.S. to boycott the games, but the president of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage (played by Jeremy Irons), insists that the country will compete, as the games are not political. With some insistence that the games are a once in a lifetime chance, Owens heads to Berlin with Snyder as something of a secret coach. He faces against some impressive German runners and the constant reminder that the Nazis dislike him.
The good news is that Race happens to be very entertaining. Unlike the most recent bio stories that put a particular focus on the subject (like with Steve Jobs and the three act structure around presentations), this tells the story as it probably was. It’ll serve as a good educational lesson about Jessie Owens and what he was facing during his time in the Olympics. Stephen James makes for a good Jessie Owens, though the biggest surprise is Jason Sudeikis who is primarily known for comedic roles. He is an example that comedic actors can handle dramatic material just as well.
The bad news is that Race tries to tell a lot of side material along with the story of Jessie Owens. We get Jason Sudeikis’ story of being a coach, Jeremy Irons and the Olympic Committee struggle, a Nazi director insuring that the games are to the liking of the führer, and even one with a German movie maker making sure she can shoot the games properly. At least one of these had to be cut, because these stories almost push Owens out of his own story. At least the movie tries it’s hardest to work with itself to ensure that Race belongs to Owens.
I’ll give this four sprinter shoes out of five. Race may not be a gold medal winner like it’s subject, but it has plenty of substance to make it worth watching and rooting for.