Set around the 1939 Berlin Olympics, Race follows the journey of Jesse Owens, an African-American athlete up against the pressures of his country, his sport, and the prejudices of the time as he went on to make sporting history.
Stephan James stars as Owens, and the film begins as he first goes to college. True to the late ‘30s setting though, it’s not long before he starts receiving odd stares and insults muttered under the breath from his fellow students.
The film tries its best to stay true to the culture of the ‘30s, shying away neither from the hypocrisy of America’s treatment of African-Americans nor the brutality of the Nazi regime. Director Stephen Hopkins does well to focus on the casual racism Owens endures and for the most part shrugs off, it never deters him and when it does he’s quickly comforted by his coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis).
Sudeikis, in a rare dramatic performance, is surprisingly very good. He’s known mostly for his comedic roles, so it’s nice to see him stretch different acting muscles. His charm and aloofness is a great counter-point to James’s optimism.
That wide-eyed enthusiasm and determination are endearing, though it feels easy to disengage with him at the beginning of the film; only becoming really interesting when he competes in Berlin. The film is at its best when athlete and coach come together, watching the relationship of these two grow. There are a few cheesy lines between the two, but it feels genuine and there’s a camaraderie and respect that they’ve managed to capture authentically.
While Jesse trains for his Olympic dream, the American Olympic Association is deciding whether to compete at all, in protest against Hitler’s Nazi regime. The opposing sides of the argument are led by Jeremy Irons’ Avery Brundage and William Hurt’s Jeremiah Mahoney, and Irons’ performance as the stubborn American businessman is a scene stealer, especially when he’s sent to investigate Nazi Germany. On the other side of the Atlantic filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) is at odds with Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine, refusing to back down from her desire to make a great film documenting the Olympics and not something to further the Nazi agenda.
Jesse Owens represents the everyman – hardworking, humble, and determined, but flawed too. He is dwarfed by the greater themes of the world around him, both racism and the growing threat that the Nazis will PR engine of the Olympics to present a rosy image to the world. The film’s most interesting moments tackle these themes head on, and make Race stand out against other sports movies, keeping it fresh and avoiding clichés.
Words by Sunny Ramgolam