There's something to be said for puns.
The title of the Jesse Owens biopic, Race, is pretty clear about its double meaning. Jesse Owens, the Fastest Man Alive, was a master at the foot race. Jesse Owens, as a black man, was very conscious of how race affected his life. These two meanings for 'race' would collide in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, where the African-American would come face-to-face with the racial theories of the Third Reich.
As a film, Race is a pretty strong bit of primer education on Owens. It is entertaining, inspiring, and well-acted. It should get extra points for having Leni Riefenstahl come across as almost heroic. How good or bad it is in regards to history I leave to others. In some respects, Race may be the last good original film of 2016 (until screeners roll around).
Jesse Owens (Stephan James) is thrilled to be going to Ohio State, though he knows that as a black man, it will not be easy. Adding to his difficulties is the fact that he has a daughter with his sweetheart, Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton), whom he wants to marry. At Ohio State, he meets formidable track coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudekis), a former track superstar in his own right who sees Owens can run like no one he's ever seen. The fact that Owens is black isn't exactly irrelevant to Snyder, but he is more interested in Owens' speed than skin.
A great opportunity to showcase Owens and have him be 'the fastest man alive' comes with the upcoming 1936 Olympic Games. Only one problem: the Games are set for Berlin, and Berlin is the capital of the pernicious Nazi Germany. The Nazis are open about their sense of racial superiority and don't really care what others think. The scandal about the Nazi persecution of the Jews and their virulent racism is so great the U.S. Olympic Committee is seriously considering boycotting the Games altogether. Sent to investigate is Olympic Committee member Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons). He finds the open assaults on the Jews repulsive and the Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) more repulsive. The little sub-dictator isn't happy with Brundage either, but the latter has a Teutonic ally: none other than German filmmaker and actress Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), who serves as Brundage's unofficial translator. Eventually a deal is struck between Goebbels and Brundage: there will be a cessation of attacks on Jews and other non-Aryans.
Owens, for his part, struggles with going or not. As a black man, he knows the bigotry of the Nazi regime is worse than the American segregation system, but as a runner, the opportunity to compete in the Olympics (and show up the Nazis) is tempting. He opts to go, even if it means Snyder won't serve as his coach (a situation they do manage to work around). Director Leni Riefenstahl is feverishly working on her documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Olympia, constantly battling Goebbels for control of both the filming and the content. Goebbels and Hitler do NOT want a black man showing up their ideas of Aryan superiority, but her concerns are only cinematic technique and capturing the greatness of the athletes regardless of race or even heritage (as the Olympic team has two Jewish track-and-field athletes too).
Owens continues his triumphant rise to four Olympic medals, besting even the German Karl "Luz" Long (David Kross), who finds the Nazi regime grotesque and finds greater satisfaction besting an athlete he genuinely admires for his extraordinary talents legitimately. Still, despite his triumph in Deutschland, back home he is still considered a 'Negro' (or worse) and not even at a dinner in his honor is he allowed to use the front entrance, instead having to go through the service entrance so as to not offend the white patrons who have come to salute him.
Race up to a point has two stories: that of Owens and, to my surprise, that of Riefenstahl. It's a credit to James and van Houten as actors that they made both Owens and Riefenstahl fascinating figures worthy of an audience's interest. In a just world James and van Houten would be early favorites in the Best Actor and Supporting Actress categories (though I figure come awards time, they will be forgotten).
As Owens, James does not make him into a living saint or monument. Race's Owens is a flawed man, sometimes given to anger (righteous and otherwise) and it details a fling he had while the ever-loyal Ruth learned to her heartbreak of. James delivers a fine performance of an athlete and man, who knows he has the talent to be great but who also wants to do the right thing for his peoples (Americans in general, African-Americans in particular).
Despite this being a biopic of Owens (or rather, a small section of his life concentrating on his Olympic triumph), I think van Houten stole the show as Riefenstahl. Exactly how close she was to Goebbels and Hitler and the Third Reich in general can never be fully known (until her dying day, she was adamant about how Goebbels was her enemy, while Goebbels' diaries suggest a much warmer relationship, though never sexual). Van Houten made Riefenstahl not just a sympathetic figure (insisting to the bigoted Goebbels that try as he might, he could not alter what was going on in Berlin, or the mood of the Germans cheering Owens on), but into a pro-Owens figure.
A highlight for both James and van Houten was near the end of Race, when Riefenstahl sheepishly asks Owens to essentially recreate his events so that she can get better shots for Olympia. It lends a moment of lightness, even humor, to a film that could have been rather heavy.
Jason Sudekis is transitioning from comedy to drama with his turn as the snappish Snyder, and he holds his own rather well. It might not be the great dramatic turn he needs to show he can do more than Saturday Night Live, but it is a strong calling card to a deeper talent than perhaps he's been given credit for.
In smaller roles, both Metschurat and Kross give strong performances as Goebbels and Long respectively. Metschurat has what is called 'presence', and every time Goebbels appears we automatically sense the grotesque nature of the Propaganda Minister, starting from his first scene, when those having a meal seem to essentially cower at his presence. I admit to wondering where I had seen Kross before, and my failure to place him was driving me crazy. I also admit that I was not a fan of The Reader, but Kross made Long into a good competitor for Owens.
Race is not without its flaws. I think time was wasted on the entire 'will they or won't they boycott Berlin' business, and trying to make the vote to decide this into some kind of titanic struggle between two factions seemed to come from another draft altogether. Joe Schrapnel and Anna Waterhouse's screenplay also at times played on cliché and made mention of things that seemed a bit forced (Snyder's anger towards Owens' possible boycott versus Owens' anger towards Snyder for his 'white privilege'). While James does a better job of bringing Owens to life than the screenplay or director Stephen Hopkins do, Race could have been more. That might be the frustrating thing about Race...that it could have been more.
Still, I'm not going to argue that what it is isn't good. A bit long, sometimes given to tangents, Race is still a worthwhile film that introduces one of the greatest athletes of all time (and even throws in one of the great directors into the mix in a sympathetic light). Despite the clichés and standard biopic fare, in a world of sequels, remakes, & comic book and video game adaptations, Race is downright original.