Race is a biopic that showcases Jesse Owens’ quest to become the greatest track and field athlete in history which thrusts him onto the world stage of the 1936 Olympics, where he faces against Adolf Hitler’s version of Aryan Supremacy. If you have never heard of Jesse Owens then I suggest you research him to understand the history and why this biopic was made.
Director Stephen Hopkins ensures that this is a celebratory film piece where the famous athlete is shown in his greatest moments. The film begins in the 30s, where Jesse embarks on a journey to Ohio State to train under its track and field coach, Larry Snyder. Owens is quite obviously the prime athlete of that time, which the film applauds in true cinematic fashion. From the first 100-metre race, it is clear the intention is to show that he was special. The film wants you too feel the glory of his greatness during that time, and to appreciate his level of athleticism. The film also shows his journey to the Olympics, but amongst all this it brings Owens’ personal demons to the surface and the politics surrounding a black man attending the Games in Nazi Germany.
Putting the legendary athlete aside, there are three other elements in this film that portray the story – the politics surrounding the Olympic Games, the racial issues, and Nazi Germany. The film marks a real issue between politics and sports and whether during that time both subjects should ever be intertwined. The American Olympic Committee is shown to be strained in dilemmas knowing full well that Nazi Germany has unethical agendas. The main dilemma is a matter of principle – what would show strength against the Nazis? Going to the Olympics or boycotting? The struggle of understanding what is right in that time is impressively portrayed in this film.
Nazi Germany is viewed more heavily than I thought it would be, to the point that it that it felt like a dystopian world. When you go from the realistic looking Ohio, with dirty field tracks and authentic-looking towns evoking the 30s to an almost cartoony version of the Nazi world, then unfortunately, the scenes do not blend as desired. This does not discredit the cinematography as some of the scenes are breathtaking. There is a moment where Owens enters the Olympic stadium for the first time and the shot is so overwhelming that you feel like you are stood next to the athlete himself.
The scenes that depict the racial horrors make you feel uncomfortable. Despite many films showing the history of racism, it is still hard to understand how this could have happened in our society. The film does not hold the racist people accountable but instead shows how Owens and Snyder divert their focus and attention to what is happening in that moment. The portrayal of the racial issues in America, in essence, shows us that racism has not changed much since the 30s – yes it was much louder back then, and more obvious, but just because people are quieter about it now and keep it hidden within their personalities does not mean the attitude is gone. The story also shows that not all movements to fight against racism are done by protests but can be done by keeping your strength and resilience by not giving up and showing the world the great things you can do regardless of the colour of your skin.
The acting in this film can be praised throughout. Stephen James’s portrayal of Jesse Owens is outstanding – he manages to make you care for a character that you know is going to achieve great things. He captures the emotions that must have gone through the athlete at that time perfectly. He graces the screen in moments of triumph and draws you in on moments where he is experiencing emotional pain. You can not fault a performance in this film. Even the Nazi filmmaker Carice Van Houten (played by Leni Riefenstahl) is effortlessly effective despite the lack of screen time. Jason Sudeikis, who plays the trainer Larry, brings to the film the most dramatic and impactful dialogue. He is a man in history that was clearly troubled by personal and historic career problems who lives his life through Jesse. Director Stephen Hopkins has to be admired for putting plenty of characters together on various plot elements which worked.
At times you believe that this film is about racism, the incredulously unethical Nazis or the politics surrounding the Games, but it is not. This film is really about Jesse Owens and only Jesse Owens, because despite the many elements against him at that time, and his own personal life to deal with, he still triumphed in glory despite immense pressure.
The baton is truly held to the finish line in this film.
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Daniel Hart is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has operated as Editor-in-Chief since 2017.