Now that the Olympic Games are underway, it’s a good time to delve into the history of some of the great athletes of the past — in this case, U.S. track-and-field legend Jesse Owens, who astonished the world by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

“Race” is a movie that documents how Owens (Stephan James, “Selma co-star) rises to Olympic stardom, even as he struggled with discrimination at Ohio State University where he trained under coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). The double entendre of a title provides much food for thought, with racism founded on superiority complexes of those needing to “prove” themselves better than others.

“Race” is earnest and sincere but it lacks the complexity that made “42” (the story about African-American baseball superstar Jackie Robinson) cinematically compelling. Clocking in at two hours and 14 minutes, it often feels bogged down by director Stephen Hopkins’ straight-laced interpretation of Owens, and his seemingly overwhelming desire to ensure the facts are right. According to the production notes, Hopkins and his film crew consulted closely with Owens’ daughters in re-creating the athlete and the man behind the achievements — a partnership that perhaps (or inevitably) cramped their style.

Race (Eiko no Ranna / 1936 Berlin)
Run Time 134 mins
Language English

On another level, however, the sheer thrill of watching James as Owens perform on the track is undeniable, especially when Hopkins dips into the style of German documentarian Leni Riefenstahl, who was commissioned by Hitler to film the Berlin Games (“Olympia”). Though Riefenstahl’s reputation remains a dark shade of gray (her films for the Nazis caused critics to label her a Third Reich sympathizer), her skill and technique in capturing the Games on celluloid were extraordinary.

In the film, Hopkins depicts Riefenstahl (Carice Van Houten) as an artist with pure intentions — she wants to film in a way that glorifies sports and the human body. Hitler (Adrian Zwicker) and his minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), however, want a film that emphasizes the strength of the Aryan physique and embodies the Nazi ideal. Perhaps Hopkins draws Riefenstahl as more liberal, heroic and pro-democratic than she really was. The rose-tinted liberties he takes in developing her character, however, clashes with the job he does on Owens.

Still, Riefenstahl was enthralled by Owens’ athletic prowess and who could blame her? Owens puts a huge dent in the Aryan myth by winning one gold medal after another (100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 400-meter relay), becoming the most lauded athlete in Berlin. In the film, Riefenstahl also immortalizes the Fuhrer’s utter consternation at this turn of events. When she’s ordered by Goebbels to ignore Owens, she pretends to comply and then at the last minute, sends her team out to place the cameras by the side of the tracks. She, meanwhile, climbs into the Fuhrer’s box to shoot the faces of Goebbels and Hitler as Owens sprints to victory.

Other important characters woven into the narrative don’t have quite the same impact as Riefenstahl. There’s Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage, president of the AOC (American Olympic Committee), who locks horns with William Hurt’s Jeremiah Mahoney, head of the American Athletic Union. Brundage wants the U.S. to go to the Berlin Games (especially Owens), while Mahoney insists on boycotting, in order to protest Nazism. These two exert undue pressure on Owens who struggles to make his own decision, and as if that wasn’t enough the NAACP (National Association For the Advancement of Colored People) urges him to ditch the whole endeavor as a protest against racial discrimination in the United States.

Owens filters through the political debris but decides that on the track, all that matters is whether he is “fast or slow,” and he basks, if only temporarily, in the freedom that affords him.

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