Home >mint-lounge >features >Film review: Race

Two men, one German and blond, the other American and black, compete for the long jump medal at the 1936 Olympics. The German, Luz Long, jumps first—7.54m. The American, Jesse Owens, responds with 7.74. Next jump: 7.84 Long, 7.87 Owens. On his third attempt, Long jumps 7.87. Owens, priming for the final jump, wipes the sweat from his face with a supple, swan-like gesture. Then, as Long watches, he runs and leaps. 8.06, a new world record, and gold for the US.

Though it messes with the actual chronology, this is one of the most famous passages in Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary on the Berlin Games. It’s fascinating not just for what it shows, but for what it couldn’t—or wouldn’t. After Owens made the winning jump, Long went up and embraced him, angering the Nazi high command. This is not part of Olympia; neither is the earlier moment when, as the story goes, Long advised Owens to jump from well before the mark after he fouled his first two attempts during qualifying.

Riefenstahl and Long are peripheral characters in Race, a film by Stephen Hopkins about Owens’ rise to sporting glory, which reached its pinnacle at the 1936 Games, where he won four gold medals: in the 100m sprint, 200m sprint, 4×100m sprint relay and long jump. It begins with Owens (Stephan James) joining Ohio State University. Almost immediately, the film teams him up with the crusty Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), who—in line with sports movie tradition—is a former athlete who missed his chance and is now a self-pitying alcoholic coach. There’s absolutely nothing in the first hour that you wouldn’t have seen before and that isn’t the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. Even before the scenes begin, you can make a fair guess which sports movie stereotype they will be adhering to—the unconventional training montage; the freak injury; the defeat that teaches the gifted athlete humility.

Race picks up once the 1936 Games come into the picture and the full weight of history bears down on the narrative. The idea of sending athletes to Germany, from where disturbing reports of ethnic cleansing had started trickling in, was abhorrent to some on the US Olympic Committee. In the film, there’s even pressure placed on Owens by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to not travel to a country that looks down on minorities. The scenes with Owens trying to decide whether he owes it to his people to abstain or to himself to compete are some of the more thoughtful passages the film has to offer. Finally, he decides to go, and from then on, Race is rousing, occasionally spectacular, and more or less devoid of any surprise.

James manages to imbue Owens with both a sense of purpose and a sense of humour. He’s more than adequate, in a film that’s barely that. The only other intriguing note is struck by Carice van Houten, whose poker face is perfect for the manipulative genius that was Riefenstahl. There’s a fascinating scene that suggests she had Owens fake a jump for her film. I wish Race had concentrated more on their relationship, or the one between Long and Owens, instead of transforming a singularly interesting life into a regulation underdog story.

Race released in theatres on Friday.

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