There are a lot of people who are not appreciated enough during the actual moments of their accomplishments. Jesse Owens was one of those people. Competing in the controversial 1936 Olympics, which took place under the Nazi regime in Germany, Owens won four Olympic gold medals. His struggle to get there paid off in a time period where Owens was still relegated by law to enter through side entrances and use a different water fountain than his white counterparts. “Race” sets out to distinguish Owens as one of the best athletes of all time, and with this in mind, the film accomplishes its goal.
Jesse Owens (Stephan James) has a lot of ambition. Joining Ohio State University in 1933, his talents in track and field could have gotten him into better schools, but Owens wanted to work with Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), a man who ruined his own chances at going to the Olympics in his heyday. The two of them have a fondness and respect for each other and their friendship is most certainly unusual in a time period that frowned upon such closeness between races. Trying to amount to something to provide for his wife Ruth (Shanice Banton) and their daughter, Owens must overcome the struggles of racism in his own country, as well as overseas in Nazi Germany, where he competes in the 1936 Olympics.
“Race” is very much reminiscent of 2013’s “42,” about baseball player Jackie Robinson. Both sports and race-oriented, however, “Race” has more of a heart than the aforementioned film. Its central relationship focus is on Owens and Snyder, their friendship being the glue that holds the entire movie together. Their give and take with each other carries the weight of a friendship during difficult times, but this doesn’t deter either of them in the least. Stephan James and Jason Sudeikis’ onscreen chemistry really flourishes and without their relationship, the film may have floundered.
Director Stephen Hopkins, having directed mostly for TV, and writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse make their intent clear: “Race” is first and foremost about Owens’ breakthrough at the Olympics, his personal life and close relationships (outside of Snyder) taking a backseat. The film breezes through a couple of major issues involving Owens’ personal affairs, shrugging them off quickly so as not to make a big deal. However, the film could have benefited from this shift in focus because, as it stands, “Race” has a run time of 134 minutes, and the occasional slowdown in pace could have been uplifted by turning its attention away from Owens’ career for a bit.
The double meaning of the film’s title is clever, if not a bit too on the nose. “Race” functions well in its primary focus on Jesse Owens’ 1936 Olympic victory (four gold medals, when he was only supposed to run three races means the man was that good). Its use of 1936 Berlin and the rising tensions between Germany and the U.S., as well as the racial conflicts serve as a good dramatic backdrop. If anything, “Race” is a bit too long for a film of its nature and it could have included more of Owens’ personal life, but the anchoring coach/athlete relationship and the performances by James, Sudeikis, and the great supporting cast ground the film.
If anything, "Race" is a bit too long for a film of its nature and it could have included more of Owens' personal life, but the anchoring coach/athlete relationship and the performances by James, Sudeikis, and the great supporting cast ground the film.