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‘Race’ Honors American Hero Jesse Owens

Stephan James-RACE-1         There are few
20th century American stories more inspiring than that of Jesse
Owens. I’m happy to report that the new movie Race does justice to the man and his legacy. Having decided not to
attempt a full-scale biography, the filmmakers focus on the defining period of
Owens’ life, 1934-36, when he went to Ohio State University, took up track and
field, met coach Larry Snyder, and competed in the 1936 Olympics.

         For younger
viewers unfamiliar with Owens’ extraordinary achievements, the film will serve
as a useful primer. Although it was made with the cooperation of his family, it
doesn’t portray him as a saint. Up-and-comer Stephan James makes him likable, credible
and human. The screenplay, credited to Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, shows
us his (few) failings and understandable frustrations as he transcends his
humble beginnings and becomes a world-class athlete.

         Jason Sudeikis
may seem an unlikely choice to play coach Snyder, but he gives a revelatory
performance and, fortunately, isn’t portrayed as a “white savior” for the
movie’s black hero.

         What is
impressive is how much ground the script and director Stephen Hopkins manage to
cover, incorporating such real-life figures as Olympic committee chairman Avery
Brundage (Jeremy Irons), a flawed figure, along with Nazi leader Joseph
Goebbels and even filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (nicely played by Carice van
Houten), who immortalized the Berlin Olympics in her epic piece of propaganda, Olympia. We learn about Owens’ German
counterpart, Carl “Luz” Long, and American teammates Marty Glickman and Sam
Stoller, whose treatment in Berlin stood in sharp contrast to Jesse’s triumph.

         Owens’ story
is so multifaceted and compelling that it doesn’t need embellishment. Hopkins
and his cast never overplay their hand and allow the truth to speak for itself.
Race maintains a steady pace and
emerges a winner.

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