Race—It’s sort of surprising that the story of Jesse Owens hasn’t made it to the big screen before. By which I mean, of course, made it to the big screen via actors and sets and dialogue and all that. The track and field star’s triumphs at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin were powerfully chronicled in Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary Olympia. But it took eighty years for Owens to get the standard inspirational sports biopic treatment.
James Cleveland Owens—a grade school teacher misheard his initials as “Jesse” and the name stuck—was born in Alabama in 1913 but spent most of his youth in Cleveland, Ohio. He was already tying world records while he was still in high school. On the Ohio State team, under Coach Larry Snyder, he famously set three world records in one 1935 meet at Ann Arbor, Michigan, all in less than an hour.
The following year he went to the Berlin Olympics, where he took four gold medals, for the 100 meter sprint, the 200 meter sprint, the long jump and as part of the 400 meter relay team. Magnificent simply on an athletic level, what made these victories all the sweeter was that Owens, an African-American, achieved them quite literally under the nose of Adolph Hitler, and in the face of his racial ideologies.
Race—there’s just possibly a double meaning to the title—makes the point that Riefenstahl’s propaganda film, meant to celebrate the ascendant Nazis, nonetheless acknowledged the greatness of Owens in a way that, for instance, the White House didn’t do for decades after. Indeed, director by Stephen Hopkins and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse come uncomfortably close to making Riefenstahl (played by Carice van Houten) a heroine here. But the ironic point is well taken: the reception Owens got in Berlin, where he wasn’t segregated from the white athletes and where he was befriended by his German long jump opponent “Luz” Long, was superficially less ugly than he got at Ohio State and elsewhere in the U.S.
Complexities like this arise from the history; the movie itself is highly conventional sports-movie uplift, a little overlong and not always convincing in terms of period. Line after line—like “You’re an amazing girl” or “Good luck with that”—sound more Disney Channel than 1930s.
But the acting helps. Owens is played by a compact young actor named Stephan James, with a dulcet voice and a charming callowness. SNL alumnus Jason Sudeikis has a likable brassy manner as Larry Snyder, and there are enjoyable character turns by the likes of Jeremy Irons, William Hurt, Glynn Turman, David Kross.
More than any of this, however, Race works because of the story it tells. I wasn’t able to remain unmoved by it, at any rate. By the time the scenes at the Games arrived, I was as on the edge of my seat as if I’d been in the stands myself.
Opening today at Harkins Valley Art in Tempe:
Southbound—This horror anthology, set on various stops along a desert highway, features several grim, blood-splattered tales linked end-to-end in the manner of Schnitzler’s La Ronde. Different writers and directors handled each segment, but they’re certainly unified by a potent atmosphere of desert-southwest isolation, menace and futility. That’s on the upside.
Also on the upside, the special effects folks serve up some spectacular, scary demons. In general, this low-budget effort is a seamlessly made, technically impressive piece of work.
On the downside, the stories are a little vague and one-note. Because all the characters seem, not to put too fine a point on it, screwed from the start, the proceedings lack suspense or a sense that there’s much at stake.
The movie does, however, seem to have a cautionary message: Stay the hell out of the desert.