The story of Jesse Owens’ triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympics is so remarkable, filled with profound drama on both a human and sweeping sociopolitical scale, that it’d be hard for a filmmaker to screw up.
And Stephen Hopkins, director of the biopic “Race,” doesn’t screw things up, exactly. His movie does a perfectly serviceable job of escorting the audience through the facts of the Owens narrative, from his days at Ohio State to his rise to prominence in the running world and his incredible dominance of his field with Adolf Hitler observing from above.
The movie just can’t escape the pitfall that has swallowed biopics about far lesser figures, for as long as Hollywood has been making them: It’s simply too straightforward, too by-the-numbers to take flight alongside its protagonist on the track, or to truly capture the emotions that must have come with facing such intense pressures at home and abroad.
Stephan James, the young star, captures Owens’ indomitable spirit quite well, convincingly displaying the sort of unflappable demeanor one must have had to achieve so much at a time and a place fraught with such challenges, both abroad in Germany and at home in an America that was hardly primed to fully embrace an African-American athlete.
The picture’s title, a dopey pun, belies the nuanced approach Hopkins takes in his illustration of the racial currents swirling around Owens, from run-ins with the Ohio State football team and their coach to the unfathomable reality that he couldn’t even go through the front door of his own celebration after a Canyon of Heroes parade. The movie flows in these details in an organic fashion that doesn’t shy away from other uncomfortable truths: athlete dorms in the United States were segregated at the time, but not in Germany, for example.
The inner life, the story between the lines, is missing. The picture might have been better served doing a deeper dive into Owens’ Olympic experience, foregoing the formative details and especially jettisoning the behind-the-scenes stuff involving the negotiations over an American boycott of the Games. There’s entirely too much Joseph Goebbels in a picture about Jesse Owens, and entirely too much backroom wheeling-and-dealing when the real story here is ensconced in the mind, body and heart of its iconic protagonist.