Stephan James plays Jesse Owens in “Race,” a purely by-the-numbers film about the history-making athlete. (Courtesy Thibault Grabherr/Focus Features)

Stephan James plays Jesse Owens in “Race,” a purely by-the-numbers film about the history-making athlete. (Courtesy Thibault Grabherr/Focus Features)

Jesse Owens deserves better than ‘Race’

“Race” dramatizes the triumphs of African-American track and field athlete Jesse Owens, who smashed records and invalidated Nazi concepts of Aryan supremacy, with the world watching, at the 1936 Berlin-held Olympic Games.

It’s a terrific story, and by simply telling it competently, the film is worth taking your kids to. At the same itme, it’s not a satisfying portrayal of an extraordinary individual or sterling historical event. It’s formulaic and fails to reveal who its subject truly was.

Directed by Stephen Hopkins (“Lost in Space”) from a screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, the movie is, like “42,” an old-fashioned, conventionally presented sports-hero biopic with a civil-rights theme and, in this case, Nazis abroad as well as racists at home. The story transpires over two years, beginning in 1934.

Attending college at Ohio State, a 20ish Jesse Owens (Stephan James) begins training under forward-thinking coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis).

Putting up with racist teammates, he earns a place on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team.

After Nazi officials in Berlin promise that they will not apply anti-Semitic or racist policies to the games — which Hitler and propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) are using as a stage on which to trumpet Nazi Germany to the world — the U.S. Olympic committee votes not to boycott the event.

Jesse, pressured by the NAACP to stay home, decides to realize his dream of being the world’s fastest runner and to shatter Hitler’s hate-based vision of human capability. He does it, earning four gold medals.

The filmmakers cover lots of ground.

They show the U.S. Olympic committee debate between industrialist Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), who argues that politics and sports should remain separate, and pro-boycott Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), who cites principles of humanity.

On the romantic front, an infidelity nearly ends Jesse’s relationship with fiancee Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton).

We also see how, even as a hero, Jesse is treated as a second-class citizen in racist America.

Yet the material is presented superficially and predictably, with the zing of a mildly entertaining history lesson.

Hopkins directs with a connect-the-dots style. The movie illustrates what Owens achieved and what he symbolized, but doesn’t get under the surface of the man. (This is no fault the capable and charismatic James.)

The supporting characters are generally stock or symbolic, and when morally problematic, presented in a fuzzy light; for example, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), the brilliant but Hitler-admiring filmmaker, and, Brundage, who makes a troubling personal business deal with the Nazis.

The potentially compelling friendships Jesse forms with Snyder and German athletic opponent Carl “Luz” Long (David Kross) play out shallowly.

Jesse Owens deserves better.

Two and a half stars
Starring Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, Shanice Banton
Written by Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse
Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Rated PG-13
Running time 2 hours, 14 minutes

BerlinJesse OwensMovies and TVnaziOlympicsraceStephan JamesStephen Hopkins

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