Race (2016)

Race (2016)
  • Time: 134 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama | Sport
  • Director: Stephen Hopkins
  • Cast: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, Eli Goree, William Hurt


Jesse Owens’ quest to become the greatest track and field athlete in history thrusts him onto the world stage of the 1936 Olympics, where he faces off against Adolf Hitler’s vision of Aryan supremacy.


  • Jesse Owens’ bout in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany is a story meant for the big screen. Hitler, racism, black empowerment, beating the odds and I am just starting to scratch the surface. Unlike most biopics, Race does not cover Owens’ entire life but just the stretch of time from his first day at Ohio State University to the 1936 Summer Olympics. Jesse Owens ran the 100-yard dash in 9.3 seconds, a world record at the time, and the film lets him get away with his flaws just as fast.

    Race is based on the incredible true story of Jesse Owens, the legendary athletic superstar whose quest to become the greatest track and field athlete in history thrusts him onto the world stage of the 1936 Olympics, where he faces off against Adolf Hitler’s vision of Aryan supremacy. Race is an enthralling film about courage, determination, tolerance, and friendship, and an inspiring drama about one man’s fight to become an Olympic legend.

    When we meet with Owens for the first time, he is already an established track and field athlete, father, fiancee and is heading to OSU for his freshman year. Unfortunately, any sports montage that dealt with Jason Sudeikis’ coach Larry Snyder and Owens is beyond lackluster but Synder’s training on Owen’s mental makes up for it. One scene that resonates especially is when the OSU football team (which had zero African-American players) attempts to force the track and field team out of the locker room so they can use the facilities. Synder’s purposely aggravates the football team to get a reaction out of them which he knew would be directed towards Owens and the rest of the African-Americans on the team. As the football team is yelling at the top of their lungs, Synder is teaching how important it is to block out outside noise and keep your focus on what is important.

    A track and field event does not last long and this plays a huge factor on why majority of the film does not take place in the sports arena. From here, we get to see who Owens is as man and not just as an athlete and like any other human, Owens is flawed. For example, the film briefly highlights the time in which Owens cheated on his fiancee but the film only captures this moment as long as they could capture him running a 100-yard dash, not that long.

    The same can be said about the emotional points the film attempted to hit. From Owens’ friendship with Luz to Owens’ father, the film misses heavily throughout the film but when they do hit, it resonates with you throughout the film

    A film about Jesse Owens should be amazing, motivational, inspirational and controversial. Race only hits some of these points. The film is a great history lesson but is a long way from the greatness of Jesse Owens.

  • Often nuanced but generally too measured in execution to be anything more than moderately uplifting, Race chronicles a key period in the life of the legendary track and field athlete, Jesse Owens, who is played with remarkable physicality, empathy and dignity by Stephan James.

    The film begins during the fall of 1933 as Owens prepares to leave home to attend Ohio State University (OSU). Screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse provide quick sketches of his home life in the opening scenes: numerous brothers and sisters, an emotionally inexpressive father (Andrew Moodie), a proud and caring mother (Michèle Lonsdale Smith) who believes that he was born for great things, his childhood sweetheart Ruth (Shanice Banton) and their daughter, who was born out of wedlock; he’s determined to make good in order to support them, assure their faith has not been misplaced, and prove that his legs can overcome the barrier of his race.

    The power of those legs catches the eye of coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), himself a former track and field athlete whose tenure at OSU has produced nothing but losses. He’s intent on getting Owens to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, partly to prove his own naysayers wrong but mostly because he recognises the depths of Owens’ talent, a talent which can transcend – though not entirely eliminate – the racism that was part and parcel of the time. Owens’ impressive performance at the 1935 Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan – setting three records and tying another – earns him a place in the public spotlight along with a bit of temptation in the form of the slinky Quincella (Chantel Riley).

    Owens’ achievements are duly delineated as is his growing bond with Snyder, but the narrative intrigues more when focused on the increasing debate over whether the United States should boycott the upcoming Berlin Olympics to show their disapproval of Hitler’s regime. On one side is Judge Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), who points out that Germany is not only pushing to exclude the Jews but also trying to keep Negroes from participating in the Olympics. He believes a vote for the boycott would be a vote against tyranny. Industrialist and future IOC president Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons, silkily cynical) begs to differ – the American people need heroes, he argues, and why should athletes who have worked for years for this opportunity be deprived of it?

    It’s no surprise that Owens decides to attend even after the NAACP attempts to compel him otherwise. Nor is it a surprise that he goes on to win four Olympic gold medals. Yet if this section of the film lacks any genuine narrative tension, it makes up for it in its nuanced depiction of race, gender, and the arguably overriding elements of art, history and sportsmanship. His friendship with German long-jumper Carl “Lutz” Long (David Kross) is particularly affecting and their conversations on how race relations are no different in Germany than they are in America hit home without being too pointed or didactic. The fact that Owens was snubbed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who never congratulated the man who won four gold medals for the United States, further underscores their observations.

    Meanwhile, it is no small irony that Owens was celebrated on film by Hitler’s favourite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), who clashed with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) over control of the footage she was capturing of the Games. [The subsequent film, Olympia, is one of the most technically and aesthetically breathtaking works ever made.] Some may argue that Riefenstahl is given a sympathetic treatment here, but there is no denying the fact that she, as a fellow minority in terms of her gender, but more importantly as a German filmmaker, was able immortalise Owens in a way no American filmmaker ever did is something to be commended.

    “A man has to present an image to the world,” Jesse’s mother says at the start, and while Race doesn’t quite expand upon or shed further insight into Owens’ character, it does provide a thoughtful view of the racial and political atmosphere that surrounded a man who helped pave the way for future black athletes.

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