'Race' Offers a Social-studies-for-dummies Look at a Complex Moment in History

Eighty years after Owens broke records at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a biopic about him has finally been made. But the result fails completely to convey the tremendous historical importance of this extraordinary American athlete.

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In recent years we have been inundated by a flood of movies based on real-life stories, including many cinematic biographies. So it’s surprising that only now has a biopic been made about the black sprinter Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals for the United States at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. But “Race” is as disappointing as it is tardy. Utterly conventional from every possible angle, it does not probe deeply any of the provocative issues it addresses (beginning with the double meaning of its title).

The director is Stephen Hopkins (“The Ghost and the Darkness,” “Lost in Space,” “Under Suspicion”) whose cinematic virtues few will defend. The limitations of his new work are particularly galling, because the story of Jesse Owens (Stephan James) is one that deserves to be told. The movie has Josef Goebbels and the film director Leni Riefenstahl among its characters; depicts the racism that dominated America in the 1930s – and even chastises President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for not seeing fit to compliment Owens after his unprecedented accomplishment, still less to invite him to the White House. Such a movie has an obligation to represent these figures and this historical moment responsibly. Failing that – and, apart from a few minutes, “Race” does fail – the result generates the sour feeling of a missed opportunity.

The movie makes not the slightest effort to deviate from the conventional biopic in its most traditional form. After skimming Owens’ childhood in a hardscrabble neighborhood of Cleveland, to which the family moved from Alabama, followed by his high school and university years – not omitting a fleeting portrayal of his relations with his girlfriend, Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton), whom he married three years after the birth of their daughter – the focus shifts to the three-year period of 1934-36, in which the plot unfolds.

By this point, Owens’ skill as a sprinter is known, and a debate ensues about whether he should take part in the Berlin Olympics as a member of the U.S. team. The argument is shown through the prism of a confrontation between Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), the president of the Amateur Athletic Union, who urged a boycott of the 1936 Games, and Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), an affluent industrialist and a racist, who insists that sports and politics should be kept apart. Brundage also negotiates with Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) over the quota of Jews who will be allowed to take part in the Olympics.

Stephan James in 'Race.'Credit: Courtesy

This historic ideological and moral clash, with its implications for the connection between sports and global politics, might have been interesting were it not for the social-studies-for-dummies script by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. The problem is compounded by the issue of the participation of a black athlete in an Olympic Games about to be held in the bastion of Aryanism.

The storyline could have been enhanced if Owens had responded to the dilemma his skin color arouses in view of the fact that his country, too, is tainted with racism. But the crass racism of America in these years is presented according to predictable tendentious formulas. Moreover, the shallowness with which Owens’ character is built causes the drama that should have arisen naturally from his position at the epicenter of the conflict to almost pass him by. He is like a passive witness to the events, wanting only to take part in the Olympics and to run.

This is also the crux of another failing of “Race,” which goes beyond the insubstantiality of Owens’ character. At a certain stage, after he has become an admired athlete in his country, he has an affair with a glamorous society woman (Chantel Riley). The affair, even if it actually happened in real life, adds nothing either to the movie or to the shaping of Owens’ character. Missing completely in the picture is an examination of the commitment and the determination that made Owens such an extraordinary athlete. We learn nothing about his inner essence or his character as an athlete; all we learn about him is that he can run faster than anyone else.

Conceptual sloth

The film stumbles even more seriously when the story shifts to Germany and takes up the confrontation that developed between Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), a favorite of Hitler’s, who was appointed to document the Olympic Games in a panoramic motion picture. Riefenstahl refuses to play down the figure of Owens, whose prowess casts doubt on Aryan supremacy. The script is sympathetic to her obstinacy in this regard, without indicating the problematic side of Riefenstahl, who was drawn to the exoticism of the other in documentaries she made after the war as well. In fact, Riefenstahl gets an image makeover she could never have imagined, which is particularly rankling because it seems to originate in conceptual sloth and sheer ignorance.

The only relationship of substance in “Race” is between Owens and his trainer, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), who did not have an easy life. This, too, is a well-known character type in sports movies, and here lacks originality and depth. Still, there is something touching about him, and also something heartrending about the disdain with which the sports establishment treats the person who was largely responsible for Owens’ breakthrough to the forefront of the athletic realm in the United States.