The first big-screen biopic of Jesse Owens focuses on the three years culminating in his triumphant performance at the Hitler-hosted 1936 Summer Olympics.
A charged moment in world history, Jesse Owens’ quadruple-gold performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics is packed with symbolism ready-made for the movies. Leni Riefenstahl mined the stunning visual poetry of it for her landmark documentary Olympia. She did so in a film that otherwise celebrated Aryan supremacy, a Third Reich doctrine that the black American athlete’s triumph left in the dust. Race, in which Riefenstahl is a key supporting character, touches on such paradoxes, pointedly but politely.
This portrait of the track-and-field immortal — first off the starting block among several planned Owens biopics, and featuring a nuanced performance by Stephan James — is more than history by the numbers. But it’s still largely a boilerplate affair that takes far too long to hit its stride.
Whether the clutter of loose threads, dead ends and flat scenes will deter viewers from one of the 20th century’s greatest stories is another matter. Owens’ triumph is long overdue for big-screen treatment, and director Stephen Hopkins delivers stirring moments amid the tension-free stretches, particularly once the action moves to Berlin.
The screenplay by Joe Schrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (who previously collaborated on the overwrought Halle Berry vehicle Frankie & Alice) wisely focuses on the three-year period leading to the ’36 Summer Games. The writers’ concision in terms of timeline is, however, offset by their reliance on predictable biopic beats. They hit as many as they can squeeze into the two and a quarter hours, circling back to repeat crucial points. The film can feel adrift at times, and introduces several characters only to do nothing with them or drop them without ceremony — as in Owens’ friendship with high jumper Dave Albritton (Eli Goree).
The Canadian-German co-production’s fedoras, pinstripes and other period details don’t overwhelm the story, although there’s a stagey quality to scenes in which Montreal subs for U.S. locations — less of a problem in the Central Avenue hotspot where Owens falls for Los Angeles socialite Quincella Nickerson (Chantel Riley).
The not quite sturdy spine of the movie is the bond between Owens and his Ohio State coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), a wiseass who pushes him to go for the gold. Saddled with a “could’ve been a contender” backstory that’s spoon-fed to the audience in all too obvious fashion, Sudeikis has the swagger of a former champion but not the gravitas to give Snyder’s personal disappointment real weight. His smirking charm, welcome in small doses, wears thin in such a crucial role.
It works, though, in the offhand way Snyder confronts the racist divide, whether it’s in the form of the stupid cruelty of the school’s football players or Owens’ ingrained habit, when they first meet, of not daring to look a white man in the eye. The latter is an especially telling detail, and James, raising his gaze, gives the instant of awakening an understated power. He navigates Owens’ transition to celebrity with subtlety as well, and there’s chemistry in his scenes (however predictable the writing) with Shanice Banton, as Ruth, the fiancée with whom Owens has a toddler daughter.
Owens’ prowess on the track was on a collision course with matters of international policy, and the movie shifts between his adventures on the collegiate circuit and the debate within the U.S. Olympic Committee over whether Americans should boycott an event hosted by a murderous regime. William Hurt appears briefly as Judge Jeremiah Mahoney, who considers a boycott a matter of moral principle. Industrialist Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons, commandingly duplicitous), on the other hand, insists that Depression-weary Americans are hungry for heroes. It’s a valid point, but he’s a slippery figure, not above striking a lucrative construction deal with Josef Goebbels (an aptly abhorrent Barnaby Metschurat).
Brundage’s first views of Hitler’s Germany have the unfortunate feel of a Disney World ride through Nazi Land. But there’s a crackling energy in his exchanges with Propaganda Minister Goebbels and Riefenstahl (Carice von Houten). Today both revered for her innovative filmmaking and reviled as a propagandist, within Race she’s a sort of mirror figure to Brundage. They’re both complicated by murky motivations and self-interest, though the film downplays the extent to which they were Nazi apologists. She comes off as a mildly hissable careerist, the movie ultimately applauding her for recording history-in-the-making and showcasing Owens. But in its depiction of the famous benching of the track team’s only two Jewish athletes, Marty Glickman (Jeremy Ferdman) and Sam Stoller (Giacomo Gianniotti), Race doesn’t equivocate on Brundage’s role and his desire not to offend Hitler.
When, in the lead-up to his trip overseas, Owens is presented with an immense dilemma, Hopkins stages the scene for all its symbolic weight: As the athlete is urged by a representative of the NAACP to boycott the Games in an act of solidarity with the oppressed, the director surrounds him with his family, including his former sharecropper father — wonderfully played by Andrew Moodie ina taut, nearly wordless performance that suggests a whole other movie, a far less neatly packaged look at the effects of segregation and prejudice.
James, who played John Lewis in Selma, signals the depths of Owens’ growing awareness — of the machinations around him and of his own abilities and aspirations. When he first enters the newly built stadium in Berlin (shot at the still-standing Olympiastadion), Rachel Portman’s strong score heightens the moment and d.p. Peter Levy’s cameras emphasize the size of the venue. But James’ look says everything necessary. And he brings an impressive, unforced physicality to the competition scenes, well captured by Levy.
The bond Owens forms with the European champ Carl “Luz” Long (David Kross), a crucial element of his Olympic experience, has an undeniable emotional pull. Their exchanges of dialogue can be painfully on the nose — not unlike the exposition-laden conversations in the movie’s clunky early sequences. But when Owens, as a black American, comments to his new friend that he’s not sure if there’s “any difference deep down” between Germany and the United States, the film, commendably, lets the observation hang in the air between them. FDR, it turns out, never contacted Owens to congratulate him.
Production companies: A Forecast Pictures and ID+ production in association with the Jesse Owens Foundation and the Luminary Group of a Solofilms/Trinica/Trinity Race production
Cast: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, Carice van Houten, Shanice Banton, William Hurt, Eli Goree, Tony Curran, David Kross, Barnaby Metschurat, Amanda Crew, Jonathan Higgins, Chantel Riley, Shamier Anderson, Jeremy Ferdman, Giacomo Gianniotti, Michèle Lonsdale Smith, Andrew Moodie, Adrian Zwicker
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Screenwriters: Joe Schrapnel, Anna Waterhouse
Producers: Jean-Charles Levy, Luc Dayan, Louis-Philippe Rochon, Dominique Séguin, Stephen Hopkins, Kate Garwood, Karsten Brünig, Nicolas Manuel
Executive producers: Patrick Teng, Paul Teng, Jonathan Bronfman, David Garrett, Sarah MacDonald, Al Munteanu, Mark Slone, Thierry Potok
Director of photography: Peter Levy
Production designer: David Brisbin
Costume designer: Mario Davignon
Editor: John Smith
Composer: Rachel Portman
Casting: Stéphanie Gorin
Rated PG-13, 134 minutes