‘Race’ Honors American Hero Jesse Owens

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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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April 2024