2015 was a year where the biopic genre had a major resurgence with movies like “Straight Outta Compton” and “Love & Mercy.” Most biopics in recent years have been strictly by-the-numbers affairs which give us historical footnotes without going into much depth about the people they are about, but those two movies brought their subjects to life in a most wonderfully vivid way. “Race,” the biopic about gold medalist Jesse Owens which should have made years ago, will not rank among the best of the genre and starts off as a by-the-numbers affair, but it does get better as it goes along as we watch this iconic African American athlete get ready for the Olympics.
Instead of looking at Owens’ whole life, “Race” focuses on the years he went to college and began training with Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) who molds his running talent into something even better. Despite the adversity he and other African Americans face on the university campus, Owens soon becomes a star athlete and gets selected to compete in the Olympic Games. But these are the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin which was under the grip of Adolf Hitler’s Aryan supremacy. On top of dealing with racism in America, Owens also has to deal with a dictator who will not be quick to celebrate any victory he could possibly achieve.
“Race” gets off to a rocky start as it gives us snapshots of Owens’ life without much in the way of introspection. We briefly see the troubled relationship between him and his father in a wordless scene, but it’s never clear why these two aren’t getting along. To its credit, it doesn’t gloss over Owens’ affair which almost destroyed his relationship with his girlfriend and daughter, and it makes for some strong scenes as he desperately tries to win her back.
The movie, however, does get better when we watch Owens finding success, and there is a subplot involving Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) who battle over whether or not America should even participate in these Olympic Games. We also get to see Carice van Houten as Leni Riefenstahl, the German filmmaker whose life could easily inspire a fascinating biopic on its own. Indeed, the politics behind these games help to make “Race” more riveting as it makes us see just how high the stakes were for everyone involved. Had it just focused on Owens, it would have been anti-climactic as we know how successful he would be at those Olympic Games.
“Race” was directed by Stephen Hopkins whose resume is all over the map as he has gone from making “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child” and “Predator 2” to helming episodes of “24” and the acclaimed HBO movie “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.” He does give the movie an amazing scene in which Owens enters the Berlin Stadium, and he puts us right into the man’s shoes as he works to tune out all the other voices yelling at him. Some biopics keep you at arm’s length away from their main subject, but this one makes you feel what it’s like to be Owens as Hopkins surrounds him with his camera to where we quickly come to understand what it’s like to be Owens at this moment. The weight of the world is on his shoulders, and he manages to not let this affect him as he makes his way to the starting line.
Playing Owens is Stephan James who played civil rights activist John Lewis in “Selma,” and he has been given the daunting task of humanizing such an iconic human being. But he succeeds as he gives us an Owens full of strengths and flaws like anyone else, and he never succumbs to portraying this gold medalist as some sort of superhuman. Had James done that, this movie could have easily fallen apart.
But the performance in “Race” I was most impressed with was Jason Sudeikis’ as Coach Larry Snyder. Sudeikis is best known for his time on “Saturday Night Live,” but the fact that he pulls off a first-rate dramatic performance here did not surprise me. Any actor or actress who can do comedy can certainly do drama as making people cry is a lot easier than making people laugh, but Sudeikis ends up giving this movie its most complex character. Snyder comes across as a hard ass when it comes to coaching his runners, but we come to see what fuels his commitment to them and of the things he was unable to accomplish as a runner himself. Sudeikis also has a great scene where he shows Owens and his team how successfully one can shout out opposing voices yelling at him in the background. He sells this scene for all it’s worth, and it makes me look forward to whatever this former “SNL” star decides to take on next.
“Race” is not going to go down as one of the best biopics ever made, but it is a compelling one all the same. While it does fall victim to reducing its subject’s life down to mere footnotes at the movie’s start, it does improve as we learn more about Owens and of the obstacles placed in his path when he decides to participate in the Olympic Games. In many ways, we should be thankful any biopic about Jesse Owens finally made it to the big screen as this movie should have been made years ago. Could it have been a better movie? Sure, but this one will do for now.
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