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We all know Jesse Owens; he’s the runner we all hear about in sophomore year high school American history class. The guy that went to the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and showed Hitler that the idea of an Übermensch needed to be retooled a little. A lot. But filmgoers get a bigger picture of Owens in Race, a film that takes Jesse Owens and his considerable talent, and puts him into his time, complete with bigotry, politics and the spectacle of the Olympic Games.
Director Stephen Hopkins (House of Lies, and one of my favorite Tales From the Crypt episodes, “Abra Cadaver”*) balances all of this beautifully. What could have been a by-the-numbers history lesson or a pedestal-buffing hosana to a legendary athlete, instead is a compelling story of one man’s struggle to find himself amid the slings and arrows of his times.
Part of what makes Race so compelling is the way screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse blend Owens’ home life, the politicking behind the Olympic games, racism in the 1930s (with its echos that sound loud and clear even today), Nazi Germany, and an athlete’s quest for Olympic gold. Yeah, read that last sentence again. That’s a helluva lot to cover in two hours and fourteen minutes. But Race does just that, making history fascinating, and those hours fly by just like Owens in the 100 meter.
Direction and writing only take a film so far; it’s the faces on the screen that can really hook you, or make you wish the casting director had done a better job. Luckily here, Stephen James (Selma) gives an amazing performance as Owens. I felt his longing for the Olympics, his struggle to balance his life and his family, and yeah, even his FUBARs Race doesn’t hide from the fact that he flirted with an actress before the Olympics, even though his fiancee (and soon-to-be-wife Ruth) and young daughter were waiting at home. And lest you think all there is to this character is someone who runs fast, James gets plenty to dig into, including a scene where the NAACP comes to his home on the even of the Olympic Committee’s vote for or against participating in the Berlin Olympics. It’s a powerful moment in the film, and shines a light on the problem many Americans saw in attending the Berlin Games. Jason Sudeikis also gives an amazing performance as Owens’ Ohio State coach Larry Snyder. A man who had Olympic dreams himself, Sudeikis’ intense, touching performance cements his dramatic actor cred here.
Two supporting performances really stood out for me. The first is Shanice Banton (Degrassi: The Next Generation) as Ruth Solomon, Jesse’s childhood sweetheart and mother of his daughter. A strong woman who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Owens, Banton imbues Ruth with a quiet strength and presence of mind that is refreshing amid a sea of lackluster girlfriend/wife characters in other films. (Shanice also has the most amazing dimples since Shirley Temple. Just saying.) The other is Carice van Houten as Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker who made Triumph of the Will, and whose documentary coverage of the Berlin Olympics is one of the subplots of this one. van Houten’s intensity is in full effect here, as it is on Game of Thrones. But her performance is so mesmerizing — scenes where she stands up to Joseph Goebbels (a steely-eyed, borderline terrifying, Barnaby Metschurat) are fantastic bits of undercurrent and barely disguised hatred — that I didn’t even know I’d seen her before until I cracked open IMDb.
It’s amazing that Race had me at the edge of my seat. Seriously; Owens and his Olympic gold medals are legend here in the States, so it’s not like the end game is in any doubt. But much like Titanic, Race managed to grip my emotions and get me fully invested in the people shown on screen. So much so that when Owens walks into Berlin’s Olympiastadion, my adrenaline spiked and I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. But the thing that surprised me the most is that this film wasn’t saved for an end-of-year release. Let’s hope the Academy remembers this film when it’s time for the 2016 nominations.