Though my own high school track record still stands (the 440 in an hour and a half) most athletic recognition is ephemeral. Few Olympic athletes, for instance, are even remembered beyond a year or two. Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in Munich in 1972 yet Starbucks baristas today are like, “spell that last name for me again.”
Still, among the legions of one-time hero athletes a few transcend the sport achieving immortality. Jesse Owens is one of them. Owens was already a gifted runner at Ohio State in 1933 when his coach saw in him the potential to compete internationally.
Director Stephen Hopkins‘ biopic, “Race” — which stars “Selma” star Stephen Hopkins as Owens and SNL alum Jason Sudeikis as his coach — looks at the controversy surrounding the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and examines Owens’ role.
It was the lowest point in humanity as Germany, Hitler specifically, manifested the abject evil of racial superiority even while touting the progressiveness of hosting the games. In fact, Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) wanted to ban blacks and Jews from competing altogether. Sending Owens was not just our way of giving the middle finger to Hitler but demonstrating solidarity to oppressed minorities across the globe. That Owens won four medals in head-to-head competition and caused the petulant leader to no-show at the traditional congratulatory meet and greet was the icing on the strudel.
The film co-stars Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage, an IOC go-between who fights against a boycott, and Carice van Houten (“Valkyrie”) as filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, charged with chronicling the glorious event.
At times this one feels like a homework movie, distilling complex elements of antisemitism and racism into pop-quizable nuggets. But better-than-average performances (especially from the usually goofy Sudeikis) and a story that stays focused keeps it engaging and ultimately uplifting.
Owens took in stride (!) the indignities of the era — “Block out hate,” his coach counsels, “it’s just noise” — and persevered. In that way, Hopkins’ film is as much about race as it is the race. “There is no black or white,” Owens famously said, “only fast or slow.”