About a year after Jesse Owens died in 1980, I had read a story about him in the sports page of the local newspaper. I was blown away by his Olympic accomplishments. The following year in in 7th grade, an English class I had was given an assignment to write about an athlete we thought was legendary. I was going to write about my favorite Laker — Wilt Chamberlain — but ended up going with Jesse Owens. The African-American teacher I had (Mr. Bass) ended up reading my report to the class. It was scary to be sitting in a new class, at a new school (going from elementary to junior high is a big deal), and having my fellow students glance at me. At that moment I had even more respect for what Owens did, because he went to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and had the eyes of the entire world watching him. I didn’t even have pressure to get good grades in school. Owens had pressure from the NAACP to boycott the Olympics. He had Hitler and the Nazis filming a movie about the Aryan race and their superiority. He had a young daughter at home, and parents that didn’t have much money. Oh, and at Ohio State where he broke world records, he was still getting racist taunts from the dolts on the football team.
It’s a shame that a great movie couldn’t be made of such a great man. It was a sanitized version that felt like a TV film. It’s the type of picture that Mr. Bass can show his class, and not offend any parents. That means when Jesse Owens cheats on his girlfriend (Shanice Banton), he first tells the woman approaching him, “I have a girl back home.” She’s also the aggressor, not him. So when he goes back to Cleveland to try and win the girlfriend back, we’re rooting for him.
It means that when there’s a tense meeting with the NAACP about him boycotting, or when we see his coach drinking a bit much…they all get resolved rather easily.
Director Stephen Hopkins (Lost in Space, The Reaping, The Ghost and the Darkness, Predator 2) gives us a rather conventional biopic, but because what Owens accomplished (on two different occasions), ranks as some of the greatest athletic achievements in sports history — it’s still a film worth seeing.
Supposedly actor Stephan James (who is excellent) stepped into Owens shoes after John Boyega left to do Star Wars. James is able to capture a vulnerability that works, as well as a slight degree of arrogance.
We’re not shown much of Owens’ early days. The story basically starts with him going to Ohio State. No, not on an athletic scholarship. He’s got to work a job pumping gas to help pay the bills.
His coach is Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), who was an Olympic hopeful that had his dreams damaged by a plane crash. He does that tough-love thing coaches in movies like this do — they yell and scream, but it’s in the athletes’ best interest. These coaches usually drink. This one, a lot. But we don’t consider it alcoholism, because…well, it’s a movie about a positive thing — Jesse Owens.
I thought Sudeikis would be a distraction. The former Saturday Night Live star has done so many wacky comedies — Horrible Bosses, Hall Pass, and most recently, Sleeping With Other People (which was highly underrated). Luckily he worked in this role.
One interesting aspect of Owens career I wasn’t aware of was him breaking 3 world records in a college track meet (and tying a 4th), all in under 45 minutes. His meets are shown in a rather quick fashion (no pun intended), because there’s a subplot to get to. That’s the U.S. Olympic Committee deciding on whether to boycott the Olympics in Berlin because of Hitler’s rise. Jeremy Irons, always strong in his roles, plays Avery Brundage, who goes to Berlin to check things out. Barnaby Metschurat is excellent as Hitler’s propaganda director Josef Goebbels.
There’s also great supporting work from Carice van Houten as filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. She’s filming the games (for the 1938 movie Olympiad).
William Hurt, the perfect name for a thespian that always looks like it pains him to act, is in a few scenes debating things with Irons. That means he does a lot of squinting and slow speeches.
A more interesting story and point could’ve been made about how things were with racism in America for Owens. Aside from the locker room clash with the football players, it isn’t until a dinner at the end, in honor of Owens — do we really feel the sting we should.
I would’ve also liked to have seen more with Luz Long, a German competitor who became friends with Owens later in life (according to the closing credits).
Show us more about Owens later in life. He had to work a series of jobs to make money. You see, when Carl Lewis (the only track and field guy I can think that comes remotely close to his track accomplishments) won the golds in the 1984 Olympics, he was set for life financially. It’s a time when you can parlay Olympic medals into commercials, speaking engagements, and get rich off those wins. The few commercial offers Owens got didn’t make him rich, and in fact, had the opposite effect. It got him banned from all other races, because he was no longer an “amateur” athlete. Owens was then relegated to stunts like racing against horses in front of crowds to make a few bucks. Talk about demeaning. Oh, and the trips to the White House — there wasn’t one for Owens to meet Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Now, that leads to another complaint with this film. It is well known that Hitler left before one of Owens’ races, supposedly to not witness him winning another. In the movie, it shows Hitler not meeting with Owens, when he was supposed to shake the hands of all the gold medal winners. In real life, Owens was rather proud of a photo he had that showed Hitler shaking his hand and congratulating him.
If the movie is going to be two hours and 15 minutes long, I would’ve preferred the last 15 minutes dealing with how he lived life after the Olympics. Perhaps the filmmakers felt that showing those details wouldn’t make this story the uplifting picture they were going for.
There were some fantastic shots in this movie. One of them has the silhouette of coach and runner before they go onto the field. Another shows an enormous Zeppelin over Owens’ head, and a large crowd all around him.
Another interesting scene has the guys sitting around a radio listening to Joe Louis lose a fight to German Max Schmeling.
The movie also had a lot of these moments I’ve really grown tired of. When one character says something, and then it’s said back to him later in the film. They did that often. Also, film scores. I’m tired of them drowning out everything, and trying to manipulate our emotions. It’s distracting and unnecessary.
A deeper portrait than the one a journeyman director gave us was needed. For an Olympic athlete with a story that is only second to Jim Thorpe — a better movie should’ve been made.
That being said, I was entertained enough. And Race is the perfect title for this film.
It gets 3 stars out of 5.