‘Race’ looks at the big picture of Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics

Stephan James stars as Jesse Owens in "Race."  CREDIT: Focus Features

Jesse Owens (1913-1980) was a remarkable athlete, and his greatest achievements occurred during a difficult period in American history. Not only did the African-American track-and-field star win Olympic gold medals for the United States while it was still segregated, but he also won them in Berlin, during the rise of Nazism.

The biopic “Race” focuses on the most dramatic stretch of Owens’s life, culminating with his 1936 victories in four events, while also examining the implications of U.S. participation in those Nazi-organized games. The film is handsomely mounted and provides a window into the tough choices Owens faced, yet its dramatic licenses oversell its message.

The screenplay (by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse) skips over the early years of Owens’s life. When we first meet him, it is 1933 and he is about to attend Ohio State University on an athletic scholarship. Stephan James, a talented actor whom you may remember from his performance as John Lewis in “Selma,” plays Owens as a good-hearted kid who slowly comes to understand what it means to lead by example. As legendary Ohio State coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) tells him, it is the winner – and not the winner’s skin color – that matters on the track.

The story unearths how white privilege informs that view: While most white Americans loved a winner more than they loved segregation, Owens still had to deal with one indignity after another. Meanwhile, director Stephen Hopkins cuts away from Owens to show us back-room negotiations involving Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), an American businessman who ultimately served as an intermediary between the American Olympic Committee and the Nazis, and others. As Brundage argues with Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) over how to handle the games, German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), who was hired to film the games, must reconcile her artistic vision with the Third Reich’s propaganda machine.

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The script and direction of “Race” are both workmanlike and serve the film well, helping us to see Owens and Snyder as ordinary people with extraordinary gifts. Hopkins never succumbs to depicting Owens in slow-motion, and all the footage of his events conveys his natural ability and a love of sport. A romantic subplot in which Owens strays from his hometown sweetheart (Shanice Banton) during a trip to Los Angeles is used to underscore how Owens thinks about competition. He cannot afford to be naive, so his behavior in Berlin takes on a symbolic dimension.

There are moments in “Race” that celebrate athletics at its purest. David Kross plays Luz Long, a German track star who shows Owens camaraderie, even friendship, while the rest of the world is watching. Scenes of Owens’ internal conflict, in which the athlete must reconcile his personal values with external demands, resonate powerfully against the film’s backdrop of systemic racism.

The subplot with Brundage is also intriguing: He loathes the Nazis, yet he works with them for political gain. Irons never chews the scenery; his character is a tactician who must bargain with the devil.

The drama is strongest when it is the most intimate. The best scenes in “Race” involve Owens’ struggles with the NAACP, whose leaders suggested he shouldn’t go to Berlin. So it’s all the more frustrating when the film embellishes history. There is a bizarre, superfluous moment in which Snyder ventures into Berlin, just so we can witness Nazis rounding up undesirables.

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Riefenstahl is a complicated, controversial figure, and yet there is no mention of her 1935 Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.” Instead, “Race” treats her as a proud artist who didn’t exactly believe her own propaganda. (The screenplay supplies a playful scene between her and Owens that almost certainly never happened.)

Such dramatic license suggests that Hopkins does not trust his audience nor his own gifts. Who needs exaggerated truth in an story already thick with racism and what it means to transcend it?

Two and a half stars. Rated PG-13. Contains mature thematic elements and coarse language. 134 minutes.

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Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.