There is precisely one attempted coup de cinema in the Jesse Owens biopic Race, which otherwise defaults to the backlot handsomeness of other Great Men tributes from Hollywood. In 1935, Owens (Stephan James), a freshman sensation on the Ohio State University track team, returns to the locker room after practice and has a run-in with members of the unintegrated football team, who pepper him with racist taunts. Owens’ more enlightened coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), steps up and advises him to “block it out.” He does. The camera zooms forward in a mesmeric stutter and the sound drops to white noise, like a train tunneling through a mountain.
This is a useful metaphor for Owens, who will win four Olympic gold metals a year later in Berlin over the roars of 100,000 people and a glowering Adolf Hitler. And it’s also a useful metaphor for Race, which cuts an aerodynamic swath through the headwinds of history. In the filmmakers’ defense, the once-over-lightly approach to Owens’ story may be the only way to tell it efficiently; the ugly politics surrounding the Berlin Games are difficult to parse, to say nothing of the discrimination Owens faced back home. FDR’s White House didn’t even acknowledge Owens’ achievement, much less celebrate it, but the film is so busy hurtling other obstacles that the snub is tucked into the closing credits. Few athletes are more inspirational than Jesse Owens, but making an inspirational movie about him isn’t so easy.
The screenplay, by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, Wiki-skims through the fascinating basics: With Nazi Germany on the rise, the cigar-puffing elites in the Amateur Athletics Union of the United States are divided over whether to boycott the Olympics. Before the final vote is cast, Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), a forceful advocate for participating in the Games, closes his eyes and plugs his nose through signs of persecution (actual signs, like “No Jews or Dogs Allowed”) to get assurances from the Nazis that they’ll dial down the Nazism a bit. Meanwhile, the NAACP pressures Owens to withdraw, believing that will send the world a powerful message. Owens quietly rebuffs the NAACP, perhaps thinking, as a teammate articulates later, that “sticking it up Hitler’s ass” also sends a powerful message.
“They don’t care much for colored folks over there,” Owens tells Coach Snyder, who needn’t remind him that colored folks aren’t that well-regarded in the States, either. The relationship between Owens and Snyder is important for Owens and central to the movie, but Race follows the pattern of so many other sports biopics in which it’s white patronage that makes black triumphs possible. Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) has Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the Brooklyn Dodgers executive, in 42; the all-black starting five for UTEP in Glory Road, which wins the 1966 NCAA basketball final, has Coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) as their architect; and Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), future Super Bowl champion, has Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) teaching him how to block in The Blind Side.
That’s not to deny the important role any of these figures played in these athletes’ lives — though Oher has bristled publicly about it. But these movies make their behind-the-scenes heroism the true revelation rather than the well-documented exploits of trailblazers like Owens and Robinson. (A hint: Which roles are played by huge movie stars?) Race does better than most by sticking close to Owens and detailing the agonizing choices he has to make at every turn — to go to Berlin, to sort through American concessions to the Nazis, to pick some battles and recede from others. The film may be guilty of sprinting through these subplots, but it succeeds in asserting Owens’ discipline and savvy as an athlete and political symbol, deflecting abuse while leveraging whatever power he acquires.
Race also has the surprising nerve to connect Owens’ story to that of Leni Riefenstahl, who’s shown documenting the Games for her 1938 masterpiece Olympia. Portrayed with robust spirit by Carice van Houten, who played a Nazi collaborator of another kind in Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, Riefenstahl carries Owens’ “block it out” mentality with her Third Reich sponsors. She has 40-plus cameras and a vision, and if it means serving as a translator or wincing her way through meetings with Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), then she’s willing to do it to advance the art. Though the documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl did a lot to improve — or at least account for — her reputation, a Jesse Owens biopic is an unusual place to celebrate Riefenstahl.
Were it not so committed to telling the official story in bullet points, Race might have found a more provocative angle about athletes and artists who work through and around the powers that be. For Owens, that 10 seconds on the track is the only true freedom he knows.