Focus Features 2 hours and 14 minutes PG-13
The title RACE for this film has two meanings. In the past year, racial discrimination remains an issue not unlike it was in Jesse Owens’ day. This is not only a story of athletic achievement of a Black Athlete during the Nazi regime in Germany, but of racial relations in the US and around the world.
There is plenty of documentary footage showing what Jesse Owens accomplished winning 4 Gold medals under the nose of Hitler at those tension filled games. But this is the first feature dramatizing what he, himself, was up against. Owens’ family was contacted by French filmmakers Jean-Charles Levy and Luc Dayan 5 years ago and after all this time, his daughters gave permission to make the film, as long as they had final approval.
From a historical standpoint, this film tells a great story. What happened to Jesse Owens has all the drama and emotion you could ever want. But it doesn’t deliver the emotional punch of a “Rocky.” Even though this real life story edges out Stallone’s fictional character, Owen’s also shows how racism in America at that time was as prevalent as it was in Germany. Even Owens’ family and friends in Cleveland tried to have him boycott the games to make a statement about race in the States and against the Jews in Europe.
Stephan James, the British actor who played John Lewis so well in SELMA, told us at a Chicago screening with Owens’ family that he found out just how well Owens is remembered and revered in Berlin. Much of the film was shot in the Berlin Olympic venue.
James works hard in the film. He trained for months to learn Owens’ running style which was unorthodox and technically wrong. That, he says, was exhausting, with 16 hours days learning lines and running his tail off. He also learned a lot about Jesse Owens, the man, and found him to be an inspiration. Click on Interview for more about this.
Jason Sudeikis plays Owens’ coach at Ohio State, the other pivotal character in this film. Coach Larry Snyder recognized the young black athlete’s raw talent and urged him to take the shot Snyder missed himself due to his own mistakes. Sudeikis, known for his comedic turns in SNL, We’re the Millers and more, is thoroughly convincing as Coach Snyder, a man who truly cares about Owens. He almost treats Owens like a younger brother. Sudeikis displays range and good timing delivering lines which make his relationship with James work.
The film covers Owen’s life, from enrolling at Ohio State until winning gold and coming back to the States. Director Stephen Hopkins (House of Lies, Californication, The Unusuals) set the stage for some very exciting events and poignant moments, but it jumps around too much. Writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse sometimes dwell on long scenes with family drama which slows the pace down. And the director seems to have put a lid on his actors. Their performances feel underplayed and seem to fall kind of flat.
There are opposing sides fighting over the possibility of USA not even going to the Berlin Games because of Hitler. William Hurt plays Jeremiah Mahoney, head of the Olympic Committee who was at odds with Avery Brundage, played by Jeremy Irons. They went head-to-head whether or not to boycott the Nazi Olympics and their verbal sparring reveals the opinions of the time. We actually see Jews rounded up while preparations are being made for the Games. This could have been played out more to show the blatant and horrible discrimination. Plus, Owens himself was getting pressure from the Black community at home to boycott the games in light of the problems in America with racism.
The highpoint of the movie for us was the competition between the athletes. Owens’ biggest rival is German broad jumper, Luz Long, played by David Kross, (The War Horse, The Reader) . The part where Owens almost fouls out of the finals and is saved by his rival, is one of the few times the movie delivers an emotional punch. Owens has been quoted as saying, “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24 -Karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace.” The film is worth seeing just for these scenes between James and Kross. The definition of sportsmanship.
Another distraction in the film that makes it feel like you’re jumping around, is about the woman filmmaker who convinced Hitler she needed to document the Games. Lena Riefenstahl is played by Caprice Van Houtem (Game of Thrones). She gets Hitler to buy into the importance of filming the games to show Hitler’s power and the Aryan superiority of his athletes. Riefenstahl is made out to be kind of a heroic character in this film making demands on for freedom of expression. Little did they know, it might backfire. But we benefit being able to see films showing what really happened.
Shanice Banton (Degrassi:The Next Generation) plays Ruth Solomon, the childhood sweetheart who eventually becomes Owens’ wife. She’s very pretty, but so soft-spoken, we sometimes lost her lines. And the emotion of their relationship doesn’t always come through.
Is this worth your bucks? We think this film is particularly worth it for young people. It deals with race, competition, history and more. It’s too long at well over 2 hours and could have been tightened up a lot. But it’s good for people, young and old, to know about Jesse Owens and what he achieved, even though it took many years for him to get the recognition he deserved, even from the White House. Also good to know that the Owens family set up a foundation for in Owens' name to help and support kids with scholarships for education. This film should and probably will be seen in classrooms around the country. You don’t have to run as fast as Jesse, but you might want to hustle to the theater to see this film. And take the kids.