FILM REVIEW – RACE. With Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Eli Goree, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt. Written by Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse. Directed by Stephen Hopkins. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language. 134 minutes.
February is Black History Month and, for many people, it’s about African-Americans celebrating their heritage. That couldn’t be more wrong. What it is–or should be–about is all of us celebrating the contributions of black Americans to our common culture. To paraphrase an old ad, you don’t have to be black to appreciate Black History Month.
One way to learn is to take in RACE, a powerful historical drama about Jesse Owens, a black athlete at a time where his white classmates at Ohio State didn’t even want to share the locker room shower with him. Owens, played by Stephan James, is most famous for his performance at the infamous “Nazi Olympics” in Germany in 1936. Here we get all that, as well as the lesser-known story of how he got there and how America came close to not participating at all.
Owens was a fast runner and went to Ohio State with several handicaps. He was an unmarried father who intended to do right by the mother when he could fully support his family. He was going to a school not known for being broadminded when it came to black students. Asked why he chose the school he said it was because of the track coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis in a strong supporting turn).
Meanwhile Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) is trying to prevent the U.S. Olympics Committee from boycotting the games in Germany, while Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) is trying to force a vote to keep the U.S. out. A key concern is that Germany plans to use the games as a showcase for Nazi ideology. Brundage goes to Germany and meets with propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to make a deal with the devil, which leads to the U.S. participating.
Even before we get to the games, the movie shows all the competing pressures at work. Germany cannot afford to have a U.S. boycott. Owens is eager to compete but is under pressure within his own community not to go. And when he makes the team, the U.S. Olympic coach has no use for Owens’ idea of how to train or of Snyder willing to work with him.
Rather than present this strictly as a matter of Owens’ heroism, the film offers a more complex portrait, showing that the story is really a series of choices are made by various people, not always the right ones or for the right reasons. Indeed, the best moment is one that doesn’t take place. After Owens wins his first race, Brundage takes him to meet the German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler. Instead they learn that he he left early. What’s made clear is that Owens’ victory was a supreme embarrassment for the Nazis and there was no way he would shake hands with the black gold medalist.
The myth of the Olympics is that it’s not about politics, but that’s nonsense. It may not be about politics for some or all of the athletes, but it clearly is for the countries they represent. “Race” gives us the story of an athlete who, simply by doing his best, made a powerful political statement that still resonates today.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.