Biopics seem to be a dime a dozen these days. Over the past few years there have been a number of films that attempt to tell the true story (albeit dramatized) of historical events and people. The latest box office success was Straight Outta Compton about legendary rap group N.W.A. What most of these films attempt to do is portray an entertaining and realistic view of the subject matter. Some offer too much dramatization (Get On Up), while others simply aren’t entertaining (Walking with the Enemy). Race is an interesting mix of film genres with a biopic in the middle to tie everything together.
The film follows the events of famous track athlete Jesse Owens (Stephan James) from his entrance into Ohio State to his participation in the 1936 Olympic Games. Along the way he encounters Ohio State track and field coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), his eventual wife, Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton) and a few others. While Race is squarely focused on Jesse Owens, the underlying subplot is the rising tension between Nazi Germany and the rest of the world (mainly the United States).
Stephan James is extremely convincing as Jesse Owens, with Jason Sudeikis going toe-to-toe with him as they valiantly attempt to steal scenes from one another. It’s difficult to say which one is the better actor because both were putting on a show throughout the film. Sudeikis has an especially powerful scene in the Ohio State locker room when he teaches Owens to block out the noise (racial jeering) by making an example of the Ohio State football team (including the head coach). These two easily carry the film into the second act when we start to get into the political turmoil that really starts to give considerably more meaning to the movie.
The 1936 Olympics were controversial because the US almost boycotted the event due to the Nazi regime. It was Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) as the leader of the America’s Olympic organizations, who traveled to Germany multiple times in an effort to ensure the American people and the International Olympic Committee that the US should attend the 1936 games. If James and Sudeikis are convincing in their roles, Irons gives them both a run for their money, even with far less screen time.
Once Brundage makes it over to Germany we meet Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat). History knows him as the Reich Minister of Propaganda, but in Race he very much feels like Hitler. To be clear, he is not meant to be Hitler in the film, but due to the Olympic focus, Goebbels seems as though he runs Germany. As much as the other actors in the film shine, Metschurat is simply unmatched. He is more intimidating than some of the most oppressive villains in cinema. The audience fears what he may do next, despite the fact that you never really seem him perform any overly righteous acts. He’s an imposing figure who dominates every scene he’s in as his eyes burn through the audience.
After dealing with Owens’ world records at Ohio State and his rivalry with Eulace Peacock (Shamier Anderson) the film quickly moves into the drama that surrounded the 1936 Olympics. This is where the movie goes beyond just a mere biopic and solidifies itself as a fantastic political thriller in many ways. The entire third act takes place in Germany for the Olympic Games and the tension is high during the entire event. This is easily the height of the film and what really makes it feel like so much more than a Jesse Owens biographical movie.
With top notch acting and a thrilling story arc, Race is one of the best biopics in recent memory. The audience is engaged from start to finish, first rooting for Owens, then for the United States. Whether you enjoy track and field or not, it’s a thrilling film that only has a few minor hiccups with some mixed messages coming from a lack of focus on Peacock and Owens’ romantic fling while he traveled with Ohio State. In every other respect this is a film that truly stands out from the crowd.
Synopsis: Jesse Owens’ quest to become the greatest track and field athlete in history thrusts him onto the world stage of the 1936 Olympics, where he faces off against Adolf Hitler’s vision of Aryan supremacy.
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Writers: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse
Stars: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Eli Goree
Runtime: 2 Hours, 14 Minutes
Bryan Dawson has been writing professionally since the age of 13. He started his career as a video game writer and has since worked for Random House, Prima Games, DirecTV, IGN, AOL, the British Government, and various other organizations. For GNN, Bryan taps into his passion for movies.