See the man behind the legend in this Jesse Owens biopic.
In the midst of the one month in North America in which we celebrate black excellence, the timing for the release of Race, a biopic about Olympic track and field athlete Jesse Owens, could not have been better. With its double entendre of a title, the historical drama promises to shed new light on the (until recent decades) oft-forgotten story of one of the greatest athletes of all the time.
Clocking it at just over two hours, the film opens in Ohio in 1935 with Jesse Owens (Stephan James) preparing to leave for Ohio State University, the first of his family to go to college. His mother gives him a Sunday School-type jacket, and he leaves his girlfriend Ruth (Shanice Banton) -- with whom he has a daughter -- with a kiss and a promise of saving money so that he can finally marry her.
Shortly after arriving at the college, Jesse runs with a friend of his on the track, and unbeknownst to him, track coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) notes his speed, timing him out of curiosity. Snyder realizes Jesse's skills and summons him for a meeting, where he promises him that if he works hard and dedicates himself entirely to running track when he isn't in class, he can get him to the 1936 Olympics.
Jesse throws himself into all of his practices. Whether it's changing his starting form or lifting his knees high to his chest to the music on a record player, Jesse follows all of Snyder's instructions, recommendations and odd exercises. This all improves his time in preparation for the Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan. However, just days before the competition, Jesse falls while roughhousing with his friends and injures his back. Coach Snyder, of course, chews him out for his carelessness, but Jesse promises that if he takes a day to rest, he will be fine. Snyder, though, is doubtful.
As the film continues, the tension that there is in terms of sport is lacking for the simple fact that this is history that most are familiar with. However, Stephan James as Jesse Owens is agile in the role, carrying himself with a manner that is stoic but warm, serious but kind. Because of his excellent performance, the personal narrative of Jesse Owens -- both with his family and with his sweetheart Ruth Solomon -- is compelling and complex, giving the film the push it needs to keep moving forward despite the story we all know.
Still, the film doesn't do much new in terms of how it tells the story. This lack of novelty isn't helped by the fact that it drags in certain moments, particularly those that pull away from Jesse, such as those with Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) and their clash at the American Olympic Committee and those with German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten). While context is necessary in a historical drama, the film attempts to cover so much ground that it loses hold of the narrative flow in these places and has a hard time smoothing out the transitions and regaining viewers' attention.
Fortunately, Race succeeds where it matters: giving audiences a glimpse into the man that was track and field sensation Jesse Owens. That the film manages to sneak in commentary on racial tension in the United States -- even pointing out white privilege, without becoming heavy-handed or preachy -- is the cherry on top.
Images courtesy of Focus Features.