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'Race' Is a Winner

80 years later, Jesse Owens sprints to Olympic glory in Berlin once again

(Video) Race Movie Trailer: Track-and-field superstar Jesse Owens (Stephan James) prepares to compete in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Rating: PG-13

Run time: 2 hours 14 minutes

Stars: Shanice Banton, Jeremy Irons, Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Carice van Houten

Director: Stephen Hopkins

En español | Here's how out of whack the world is: Hollywood made the 2015 Whitey Bulger biopic Black Mass just four years after the murderous gangster's arrest but waited 80 years to produce a feature film spotlighting one of the 20th century's most celebrated and heroic figures, Olympic runner Jesse Owens.

Happily, Race is a stirring film biography, rich in period detail and inspiring in its depiction of one man's triumph over racism. Stephan James, who played civil rights activist John Lewis in Selma, stars as the African American runner/jumper who single-handedly exploded Hitler's myth of Aryan superiority by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Like an Olympic runner scenting the finish tape, Race takes a direct, no-detours route in telling Owens' story. We meet him as a new student at Ohio State University, hoping to make the track team and catching the eye of coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Faster than you can run the 440, it seems, Owens becomes the school star — a status that does not spare him racist taunts from goons on the football squad — and Snyder is experiencing visions of coaching his runner to Olympic gold in Berlin.

Aptly, there are hurdles to overcome: The local chapter of the NAACP, for one, begs Owens to boycott the games to protest the Nazis' racist policies (and in 1936 they didn't even know the half of it).

There would be no exultant personal history, of course, not to mention no stirring movie, had Owens opted not to compete. In Berlin he logs achievements great and small, winning not just four events but also the friendship of top German runner Luz Long (David Cross) and the wild endorsement of the everyday Germans who packed the city's Olympic stadium.

Straightforward as it is, Race does pause to cast a critical eye on the treatment of blacks stateside during the 1930s. In Berlin, Owens and his fellow African American athletes are flabbergasted to learn they'll be housed in the same quarters with all the other competitors; back home their dorm rooms would have been on the other side of town. Then, perversely, upon his return to New York the conquering hero is obliged to enter the Waldorf Astoria Hotel through a side door — even though the event he is attending there is in his honor.

Stephan James as Jesse Owens in 'Race'

Courtesy of Focus Features

Stephan James as Jesse Owens in 'Race'

There are obvious parallels between Race and 42, the 2014 film biography of baseball legend Jackie Robinson. In both cases, it appears, the protagonists were precisely the men that history required: gentlemen who knew that displays of temper would hurt their cause and whose physical prowess was so overwhelming they seldom needed to speak up on their own behalf. As Owens, James adds an easy charm to the mix, but once his spikes bite the cinders he's all business. For James' Owens, running is not just a way to escape an unfair world; it is a transcendent world unto itself, a realm of infinite focus and pure energy that exists only between the starting gun and the finish line. He's an intense individual — he had to be — so it's welcome leavening to find SNL alumnus Sudeikis on board as his coach. Was the real Larry Snyder as jocular and breezy as he's portrayed here? No matter; Sudeikis — his smile askew, his hat at a jaunty tilt over one eye — lends the film a much-needed lighter touch.


The supporting players in Race are all excellent. As Owens' patient wife, Shanice Banton is the perfect woman for a hero to come home to. Game of Thrones star Carice van Houten strides about as Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, torn between delivering the documentary the Führer demands and faithfully chronicling the American's history-making feats. And Jeremy Irons is maddening as Olympic executive Avery Brundage, a conflicted ball of hubris and humanitarianism.

Some may quibble about the historic accuracy of Race. Like most biopics, it smooths over the rough edges that complicate life's true narratives. The film perpetuates the popular belief that Hitler snubbed Owens following his victories, yet Owens consistently maintained that the dictator congratulated him warmly. (From Franklin Roosevelt, meanwhile, the champion waited in vain for a laudatory telegram.)

Race ends with that shameful visit to the Waldorf Astoria — a national disgrace that is sadly not the product of the screenwriters' imaginations. Yet somehow director Stephen Hopkins (TV's 24) ingeniously transforms the insult into a triumphant coda: As he passes through the hotel kitchen, Owens comes face to face with the people whose lives he has touched the most — African Americans toiling just beneath the surface of America's mainstream, fiercely inspired by his accomplishments. At the fadeout, Owens and his wife stand in a freight elevator, eyes ahead, smiling slightly, rising to the occasion in a way only they can truly understand.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.


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