Race: An Inspiring but Muddled Biopic

The movie, which charts Jesse Owen’s path to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, fumbles trying to tell multiple stories at once.

Focus Features

Race sets itself up as a standard Hollywood biopic: a straightforward telling of the life story of Jesse Owens, the African American sprinter who made history when he won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics. It accomplishes its task with all the subtlety of a Hallmark film—Owens (Stephan James) overcomes an impoverished upbringing and racism to become the world’s leading athlete, with the help of a bullish coach (Jason Sudeikis) and a burning desire to win. But where Race both soars and fumbles is in its telling of the most thrilling part of Owens’s biography—his triumph at the Games, which were held in Nazi Germany three years after Adolf Hitler came to power.

At two hours and 14 minutes, Stephen Hopkins’s film is far too long, though the bloat makes sense to an extent. He’s juggling two different movies that demand to be told concurrently, with a script that isn’t quite up to the job. The intersections at the core of Race are riveting—the idea that Owens, faced with daily racism at home, was pressured by some to take a stand against even attending the Olympics as a larger symbol of protest, versus the idea that his eventual triumph would undermine Hitler’s grand spectacle. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t explore these clashing ideals in enough depth, though it’s at its most original and compelling when it tries to.

To begin with, there’s a lot of standard sports-movie myth-making to get through. James is quietly charming as Owens, who possesses unnatural calm and focus from the first minutes of the movie. It’s hard to visually dramatize the skill of running very fast—the simple fact of Owens’s greatest achievements was that they occurred so quickly—so James makes Owens seem poised to bolt at any minute. When he isn’t running or jumping on the track, he’s a reserved figure, so much of the film’s early action is handed to Sudeikis, who plays Larry Snyder, Owens’s tough-talking coach at Ohio State.

Most of the film’s first and second acts are predictable. Owens and Snyder rub each other the wrong way at first, but quickly offer a grudging respect; there are training montages and scenes establishing the abuse Owens faced from other students and coaches at the school. Then, success strikes, and the road to the Olympics beckons. Too often, Race’s script (by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse) seems content to merely check the biopic boxes without fully fleshing out its subjects. A tangent about Owens’s brief college dalliance with another woman is a half-hearted attempt to give him some flaws, but he quickly returns to his high-school sweetheart and marries her (they stayed married for 45 years until his death in 1980).

Meanwhile, the larger Olympic story is playing out in parallel. Jeremy Irons plays the industrialist Avery Brundage, who pushed for America’s participation in the Berlin games while giving a determined blind eye to Nazi Germany’s bigotry and terror, which he witnesses first-hand in the film. William Hurt makes some principled speeches as his opponent in the American Olympic Committee, and Glynn Turman shows up as the NAACP official Harry Davis, who asks Owens not to attend in 1936 as a symbolic protest against global racism. The film tries to give Owens’s decision its proper weight, even though viewers know what he’ll choose, but this saggy second act merely amounts to everyone giving a lot of unnecessary speeches.

The action in Berlin is much more engrossing, but jarringly so. What has largely been Owens’s story, with some historical window dressing, suddenly draws several other major figures into its orbit. There’s a whole subplot about the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), and her efforts to make her famed propaganda documentary Olympia in uneasy collaboration with the Nazis (a topic that’s far too complicated for the brief treatment Race’s script gives it). Germany’s racist propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) also makes an appearance, anchoring every scene he’s in with terrifying, psychotic calm. There are even glimpses of Hitler over his shoulder, although the film smartly avoids trying to fully capture his personality onscreen.

There are other stories, too, that don’t get nearly enough attention—the participation of the Jewish athletes Marty Glickman (Jeremy Ferdman) and Sam Stoller (Giacomo Gianniotti), and Owens’s unlikely friendship with the German long jumper Carl Long (David Kross). These threads all play out against the generally surreal experience of being free of segregation for the first time in a country that’s cracking down on its own disenfranchised people. The film ends without really exploring Owens’s post-Olympics life and the struggles he faced upon returning to America. Race wants to end, unsurprisingly, on a note of uplift—but for a film with so much dark, unexplored potential, it’s an unsatisfying finish line to cross.