The multiple gold-medal-winning effort by Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin is one of the most important moments in sports and world history. It’s a defining moment because of how Owens faced a bigotry of international proportions and came out of it as a champion.
That story is told in “Race,” a film that examines the athletic accomplishments of Owens and the turbulent social and political times in which the events occurred, as suggested in the double meaning of the movie’s title.
Heading into the 1936 Olympics, Owens (Stephan James) had established himself as one of the top athletes in the world. There was no question that he would bring home gold.
But the Games were being held in Adolf Hitler’s Germany. The Germans made it clear they didn’t want any blacks or Jews participating. The United States almost boycotted the Games but ended up attending after a close vote by the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Owens was torn between wanting to show his talents on a world stage and having to do it in a country that cultivated bigotry at such a deep and hateful level.
Director Stephen Hopkins shows more skill with the sports elements than the behind-the-scenes parts of the story. But he makes up for it with both the sports segments and the quieter times when Owens deals with the pressure from so many fronts. A lot of that success comes from James. The young actor handles the athletic challenges with ease, but his real gold medal effort comes in getting across the pain, confusion, joy, hope and frustration Owens faced in a world where all he wanted to do was compete.
What knocks the movie down to a silver medal is Jason Sudeikis as Owens’ coach, Larry Snyder. Sudeikis doesn’t make his character come to life or make viewers forget his comedic past.
Still, “Race” is as important as a movie like “Selma” or “12 Years a Slave.” It presents some horrible truths about mankind with power and grace. The film’s messages are powerful and beautifully conveyed.