Ignore Race’s daftly on-the-nose title and forgive it its cinematic trespasses – namely a disjointed narrative and excessive length – and this is a potent sports drama elevated significantly by Stephan James’ rock solid lead performance.
This biopic of black Olympic athlete Jesse Owens (James) follows his youthful promise as a record-setting 100m runner through to his eventual competing at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, braced against a Nazi regime who naturally would wish him to be literally anywhere else. With the help of his strong-willed trainer Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), Owens seeks to disprove the myth of Aryan supremacy on the Nazis’ own home soil.
It’s worth stating at the outset that a far more concise and powerful film based on Owens’ life was certainly possible. This is an effort handicapped by its by-the-numbers biopic treatment as well as its desire to be all films to all people, resulting in a bloated 134-minute final product that, rather than use the Nazi Germany context as a backdrop for Owens’ story, frequently diverges to focus explicitly on the Nazi ideology (something almost all viewers will be well aware of).
Exposition may be gracelessly shoved in the viewer’s face throughout, but when the movie works, it really works. James is a delight in even the less-compelling scenes, a face of flawed integrity and, most importantly, wholly convincing as the jaw-dropping athlete himself.
Sudeikis, primarily a comedy actor, does fine work as the irascible, passionate trainer, and the dynamic between the two is at turns touching and entertaining without pushing too far in either direction. The likes of Jeremy Irons and William Hurt do solid work in smaller supporting parts, though the lovely Carice van Houten impresses the most as iconic German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.
It certainly feels hagiographic at times – especially in terms of how eagerly it glosses over less-savoury elements of Owens’ persona life – and would be a stronger film with about half-an-hour of contextual guff chopped from the run-time, but as a passionate examination of an exceptional man’s life, it just about does the job.
Race is in cinemas now