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.