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Station: Sports Biopic
Time Travel Destination: 1933-1936 Ohio and Berlin, Germany
Conductor: Stephen Hopkins
“There ain’t no black and white. Just fast and slow.”
One man can change the course of history. In 1936, that man was Jesse Owens.
Director Stephen Hopkin’s biopic Race (2016) explores the pivotal years when Owens begins his track and field career at Ohio State University in 1934 to when he won an four gold medals for the United States at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. The journey in between is a fascinating story of a talented young man given the opportunity to practice his talent while also facing the hardships of growing up black during the Great Depression. He faces prejudice at every turn. It’s through the support and tough love he receives from his coach that Owens is given a platform to shine.
Stephan James stars as Jesse Owens. We watch Owens progress from an unskilled runner with a natural talent for speed to a highly-trained master of short sprints and the long jump. Owens carries a big weight on his back. He has a big family to support as well as his girlfriend Ruth (Shanice Banton) and their daughter Gloria. He’s the first in his family to go to college. And not only that, he represents all his fellow African-American men and women through his glory as an athlete but to also fight against prejudice and racism not only in his country but also in Nazi Germany. This is no small feat. Owens has a monumental task in front of him and we are there to root him on.
“A man has to present an image to the world.”
The title of this movie Race has a double meaning. It represents Jesse Owens’ track and field career and also being African-American in a time of systemic racism. The film explores both aspects of Owens life and how running helped him transcend prejudice. Not only would Owens break records in his sport but he also paved the way for African-American athletes to come.
I was quite impressed with Race (2016). Star Stephan James did well by Owens in honoring his legacy and portraying a young talented man who had this overwhelming burden to bear. The portrayal is complex and James plays Owens in a highly sympathetic manner. I very much enjoyed the relationship between Owens and his coach Snyder, played by Jason Sudeikis. I’ve only seen Sudeikis in comedic roles so it was great to see him in a drama playing a mentor. Little is known about the actual historic figure so what Sudeikis brings to the table is what we all hope their relationship would have been. James and Sudeikis play off each other effectively on screen and I looked forward to each new scene with the two. I was also particularly taken with the real life Luz Long and Jesse Owens friendship as portrayed by David Kross and James. I immediately went to research this online and the portrayal in the film is very close to what happened in real life. Long was a German track and field athlete who helped Owens even though it went against Nazi ideology.
“God spared you for a reason.”
Jeremy Irons, one of my favorite actors who has frequently graced the screen in many a period piece, plays Avery Brundage, the US Olympic Committee chairman who negotiates with the Nazis. Barnaby Metschurat plays Joseph Goebbels as a cold, calculating Nazi who is annoyed by Germany’s need for having the United States at their Olympics. He draws the audience’s necessary anti-Nazi ire. I questioned the storyline about Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi filmmaker played by brilliantly by Clarice van Houten. I wondered in the filmmakers were too lenient with her portrayal as a more sympathetic figure.
Visually this film does it’s best to represent the mid 1930s as it would have looked. It’s history CGI’d with a sepia filter. Much of what we see is layered so it feels more fantastical than real. But because the story is based on true events this really doesn’t take away from the movie’s message. The 1930s style costumes are magnificent and I was particularly taken by the colorful wardrobes worn by Shanice Banton and Chantel Riley. Clarice van Houten dons finger waves, cloche hats, blouses and equestrian pants.
Race put me through the ringer emotionally. I went through the gamut of experiencing joy, anxiety and anger and I spent most of the final 30 minutes of the film streams of tears coming down my face. This is an amazing film because it’s an amazing story.