There’s a typical narrative arc that most sports films follow: A promising but troubled young athlete meets the coach with a penchant for unconventional training methods; the coach helps the athlete realise his true potential and achieve greatness, the athlete helps the coach battle his own inner demons; a grand sporting event is scheduled where our hero — the underdog — triumphs over much better trained/privileged champions.
In the midst of his gruelling training, our hero also finds time for romance, with a good woman who will stand by him through defeat, and ultimate victory.
Race — the new film directed by Stephen Hopkins and starring Stephan James and Jason Sudeikis — follows that format to the tee. What makes it worth watching then? The fact that it is based on the real-life story of the legendary Jesse Owens, and his quest for gold during the historical 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Race comes at an interesting time. We’re still feeling the shock waves from Maria Sharapova’s admission that she tested positive for Meldonium, a banned substance. It highlights how sportsmen are figures of inspiration, of a physical excellence that many of us only aspire to but can never hope to reach.
At the same time, we’ve also witnessed the furore over the Taskin-Dhoni morphed image, with hackers from India attacking 20 Bangaldeshi websites that trolled MSD — showing that sports is also subject to the politics of nationality and race.
Race touches on both these themes. It begins with a young Jesse Owens (James) readying for his first day at the Ohio State University. Meanwhile, at the university, the track-and-field coach Larry Snyder (Sudeikis) is looking for “fresh blood”, facing possible dismissal after a prolonged losing streak. He opens Owens’ admissions file, clocks him doing a 100-metre dash and knows he has a bonafide star. From there, the film follows Snyder and Owens’ journey to the 1936 Olympics.
Of course, this isn’t quite the straightforward journey: Owens is battling not just other athletes on the race track, there is also the racial discrimination he faces as a Black man. Moreover, his chance to win Olympic glory is threatened by forces he cannot control — the US’ Olympic committee is faced with the dilemma of whether or not their participation in the Games will be seen as a validation of the Nazi regime, and Hitler’s persecution of the Jews.
Owens himself is under pressure to withdraw from the Olympics, to make a statement about standing up for oppressed people. What would deliver the greatest snub to the Nazis? Winning Olympic gold from under their noses and disproving their theories of Aryan supremacy — or refusing to take part in the sporting spectacle they’ve organised?
It is truly commendable that in a story that doesn’t have much scope for suspense — Owens’ Olympic feat is hardly a secret — Race is engaging throughout. Does it offer a holistic view of Owens’ life, his personality, his early or later years? No, and if that is what you want, then you’re far better looking up earlier features like the 1984 mini-series The Jesse Owens Story, Bud Greenspan’s Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin or Laurens Grant’s Jesse Owens (2012). Race is more concerned with Owens’ tryst with Berlin, and the role Snyder played in helping him get there.
Race can’t be accused of subtlety — it makes its point(s) in a rather ham-fisted manner. To portray the bleakness of Owens’ neighbourhood, Peter Levy’s cinematography takes on an appropriately grim and grey tone.
The American Olympic committee’s debates over whether or not politics should be allowed to interfere with sports and the pursuit of athletic glory (seen mainly as a series of exchanges between committee members played by Jeremy Irons and William Hurt) are similarly obvious — as is the irony of the US speaking out for oppressed people in Germany when racial segregation on its home shores was alive and kicking.
But the central performances keep details like these from bogging down the film. While Jason Sudeikis does a competent enough rendering of Larry Snyder, it is Stephan James’ portrayal of Jesse Owens that is truly endearing. He may have been given a somewhat one-dimensional brief, but James plays Owens with a balance of cockiness and vulnerability that’s hard to find fault with.
At one point in the film, Snyder tells Owens that people come to watch him race for the same reason that they stare so excitedly at a plane up in the sky: What they really want, is to see (you) crash. But in the case of Race, all you really want, is to see Jesse Owens soar.