[Screen It]


(2016) (Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis) (PG-13)

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Drama: An African-American runner of the 1930s must contend with racism in America as well as the various pressures of competing in the Nazi-controlled summer Olympics in Berlin.
It's the 1930 and Jesse Owens (STEPHAN JAMES) is a young, African-American man who's the first in his family to attend college. He's decided on Ohio State, mainly in order to train under track coach Larry Snyder (JASON SUDEIKIS) who once had a chance of competing in the Olympics a decade earlier. Larry is demanding of Jesse, although he's initially unaware that the young man has a young daughter with Ruth (SHANICE BANTON), a beautician back home.

As Jesse trains and improves his already remarkable abilities, Avery Brundage (JEREMY IRONS) and Jeremiah Mahoney (WILLIAM HURT) are among various Olympic committee members who are debating whether America should participate in the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin. Jeremiah argues against such participation, citing the rising power of the Nazi party and that government's treatment of Jews and others in their country, while Avery believes the Games are exactly what America needs to help climb out of the Great Depression.

Accordingly, he travels to Berlin to meet none other than Joseph Goebbels (BARNABY METSCHURAT). He's the powerful Nazi leader who's in charge of the Games that are to be filmed by Hitler's favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl (CARICE VAN HOUTEN). Avery manages to pressure Goebbels to tone down the racist rhetoric, all while being fully aware of the rampant racism back home. That's something that hasn't escaped Jesse as he must contemplate whether to compete with the likes of German runner Carl 'Luz' Long (DAVID KROSS) or not, what with nearly everyone having an opinion on the matter.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Years ago I heard a speaker giving a presentation about being the best in whatever your chosen endeavor might be. There were lots of juicy tidbits of information gleaned from that, but one part of the speech really stuck with me. And that was that the Olympics assemble the world's elite athletes, yet humankind nearly always only remembers those who take home the gold medals. You might be the second fastest person in the entire world -- a remarkable feat no doubt -- but you'll most likely fade into obscurity.

Don't believe me? Name the second place finishers to Usain Bolt, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Carl Lewis or Jesse Owens. Yeah, I couldn't do it either. But among those winners, Owens' records might have fallen over the decades since he upset the Nazis' propaganda about a German master race at the 1936 Berlin game, but his story is certainly the most fascinating of pretty much any runner, past or present.

Surprisingly, it's only been told in filmed form as the 1984 TV movie "The Jesse Owens Story" where Dorian Harewood played the title character. Now, eighty years after the young man won four gold medals in those Olympics, he gets his big screen due in "Race." Named not only for the obvious sports related aspect of his life but also that of racism both in America and Germany in that era, the pic is a classic underdog tale of a talented character overcoming obstacles and adversity to achieve his goals.

As directed by Stephen Hopkins from a screenplay penned by Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse, the pic is decidedly old-fashioned in both look and tone as well as occasional bouts of being too on-the-nose in terms of its subject matter, thematic elements and so on. But unlike other biopics that cover all or a great deal of their subjects' lives, this one focuses on just a few years in the 1930s. Specifically, that's when Owens (a winning Stephan James) heads off to college -- leaving his beautician girlfriend (Shanice Banton) and mother to his young child back home -- to train under legendary track coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), all while dealing with rampant racism. When that's not occurring, there are the obligatory training montages and various competition events.

On another front, we see two Olympic committee leaders (played by Jeremy Irons and William Hurt) debating about whether America should boycott the Games due to Nazi Germany's treatment of Jews and others. Irons' character eventually travels to Berlin where he not only meets Hitler's favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), who's going to document the games, but also none other than Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) who's in charge of them and doesn't appear to have much emotional range beyond being calmly pissed off or sporting a menacing look.

Back home, Jesse must also decide on whether to boycott the games, what with doing so being a golden opportunity to showcase America's racism by pointing out Germany's. It's all fascinating, real-life material, and it's handled decently enough, with the film finally picking up some steam and momentum once the Games and races actually commence.

Alas, it all feels like it's more worthy of a bronze rather than gold cinematic medal. It's good, but not great, and never really delivers on the emotional, jump from your seat to celebrate level, while also barely skimming the surface of what really made this man tick. In short, it comes off like an entertaining enough but still superficial look at what undoubtedly had so much more going on both on and just below the surface.

Overall, I enjoyed this film enough to give it a recommendation. But like many a second or third place runner, it's unlikely this film will come to mind in years to come when people still remember "Chariots of Fire" as the gold medal winner and cinematic standard-bearer of movies about runners. "Race" finishes with a score of 6 out of 10.

Reviewed February 16, 2016 / Posted February 19, 2016

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