Jesse Owens’ Race film just misses gold

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3.5 out of 4 stars

Race carries vastly different meanings depending on context – consider Jesse Owens.

On the track, he mastered it. He sprinted and jumped to four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics after setting three world records in an afternoon at the Big Ten Championships a year earlier competing for Ohio State.

Off the track, he persevered to overcome it. His skin color put him in the cross hairs of racial bigotry spewed by white America and the world.

In life, he defined it. Perhaps no man symbolizes the four-letter word than Owens, who overcame socio-economic and societal hurdles, as well as the best athletes of his time, before dying of cancer at age 66 in 1980.x

Thirty-five years after death, Owens is resurrected in the aptly-titled Race, a biopic that chronicles his rise from the poverty-stricken streets of Cleveland, through Ohio State University and ultimately to the top of the medal podium at the greatest spectacle of all: the Olympics.

Hollywood ignored what Owens did during a few days in Berlin in 1936 for far too long. After all, decades before Rudy Ruettiger put on a Notre Dame helmet, Micky Ward won a boxing title and Michael Oher made his first block – all of which have since been documented on film – there was James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens.

Without Owens, would mainstream America even know Jackie Robinson’s name? Owens’ feat at the 1936 Olympics in front of Adolf Hitler is as significant event in American history as any that doesn’t involve a weapon.

Close your eyes. You’re walking into the newly built stadium surrounded by 110,000 white faces and nearly everyone hates you because your skin is darker than theirs. You can feel the crowd’s disdain. They don’t want you here. You’re not worthy of competing against Caucasians, especially those representing the powerful Aryan race who Hitler is counting on to show his country’s so-called “master race.” You toe the startling and focus 100 meters ahead of you, oblivious to the swastikas hanging throughout the venue. The gun sounds and for less than the next 10 seconds, it’s just you and a date to change perception.

If Owens doesn’t prove a black man can walk into Hitler’s brand-spanking-new Olympic Stadium and turn it into his personal playground and emerge as the fastest man on the planet, would the Brooklyn Dodgers have believed a black man was worthy of a roster spot? If Owens doesn’t jump farther than any man in history in the long jump, how many Olympics would pass before blacks had the chance to go for gold?

In the end, Owens’ biggest competition at the Olympics wasn’t even on the track. His was in a New York City hotel, where U.S. officials voted 58-56 to participate in the Berlin Games, despite Germans’ plea to ban blacks and Jews. Two votes became the difference-maker in Owens leaving his mark in history or being left at home.

Director Stephen Hopkins is astute in capturing the pivotal moments leading up to the Olympics. He moves the audience to love the pretty Owens (played by Stephan James) early before addressing the ugliness around him.

The pure hatred unleashed by the German government, especially in its rounding up of Jews, is shown throughout the 134-minute film. The heated debate between Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) – the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee – who wanted the Americans to compete, and Jeremiah Mahoney (Wiliam Hurt) – the president of the Amateur Athletic Union – who argued the U.S. should stage its first boycott, showed how close the 1936 Games came to becoming historic for another reason.

Owens simply doesn’t get the credit he deserves for what he did for a country that prided itself on being red, white and blue when it was largely defined by black and white. He was by no means a saint, which Hopkins addresses through scenes about Owens’ complicated situation with his wife and baby daughter and his affair with a Hollywood vixen.

James is terrific as Owens, but the same can’t be said for Jason Sudeikis, who plays Ohio State coach Larry Snyder, who developed a close relationship with Owens and accompanies him to Berlin. Sudeikis comes off believable, but he has been significantly better in comedies, which include Horrible Bosses 2 (2015), we’re the Millers (2013) and Horrible Bosses (2011).

Sports – and their personification of society’s issues – have long held a spot in Hollywood’s starting lineup.

Brian Piccolo and Gayle Sayers have Brian’s Song, Ernie Davis has The Express, Robinson has 42, and Muhammad Ali has Ali. But compared to Owens’ Race, they come up short.

Just like so many of Owens’ opponents on the track.

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