Credit: Thibault Grabherr

The title is on-the-nose but rather fitting for the story of Jesse Owens, the black track-and-field athlete who stunned the world by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Adolf Hitler’s Berlin, delivering an impactful blow to the Nazi vision of white supremacy.

Rather than going for a sweeping biopic of a great man’s entire life, Race opts, like Selma, to focus on a specific, important stretch of time. Owens (Stephan James) is introduced on his first day of college at Ohio State University. He’s already a promising talent, having set at least one record in high school—and he’s already a father and a fiancé. This immediately complicates his relationship with track coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), who pushes Owens to dedicate all his time to practice. Snyder was a successful OSU track-and-field athlete himself, but so far has struggled to coach the same glory out of his players. His relationship with his new star grows as each realizes they have what the other lacks. The standard sports movie training montages (Owens racing around the track, learning the proper way to start) are a little lackluster, but that’s because the best training Snyder gives Owens isn’t physical. In one vivid scene, OSU’s football team tries to rush Owens and his teammates out of the locker room, complete with forceful deployment of racial epithets. Snyder refuses to give ground. Anticipating the kind of pressure his star player will face down the line, Snyder instructs Owens to “block it all out”…even as the football coach screams in his ear.

Perhaps because track and field events, by definition, don’t last very long, Race spends much of its middle section outside the sports arena. After racking up records, Owens’ success starts to go to his head, and he cheats on his fiancée Ruth (Shanice Batton). Credit Race for showcasing its hero’s human flaws, but the movie unfortunately lets him get away with them a little too easily (his grand makeup gesture to Ruth comes off more creepy than romantic).

Meanwhile, American Olympic Committee president Jeremiah Maroney (William Hurt) squares off with industrialist Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) over whether the U.S. should boycott the upcoming Olympics given the troubling reports out of Nazi Germany. Their debate is thought-provoking and impeccably acted but ultimately fails to justify itself, especially since Owens later ends up facing the same choice on a personal level.

The movie really kicks in when Owens finally arrives at the Berlin Olympics. His first entrance into the arena is especially striking, as this boy from Depression-era Cleveland suddenly comes face-to-face with a marvel of futurist architecture, a giant zeppelin blimp overhead, and an entire crowd of people shouting the seig heil. His match against Aryan superstar Carl “Luz” Long (David Kross) takes surprising twists, but as the movie’s coda demonstrates, triumphing over Nazi athleticism didn’t do much for the racism at home. B

2016 movie
  • Movie
  • 134 minutes