Starring Stephan James. Rated PG. Now playing.
It’s a truism that anyone with one drop of African blood has to be ten times better than everybody else just to have a crack at the system in the U.S.A. The perfect 20th-century exemplar of this dynamic is Jesse Owens, who repudiated American racism and Nazi ideology by earning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
A slow-burning fuse of racial hatred runs through Race, giving its title a prismatic quality beyond the circumstances of that fateful event, and beyond what the lengthy film can pull off. Toronto’s Stephan James (John Lewis in Selma) plays Owens, and he’s the most remarkable part of this Canadian-German-French coproduction, largely shot in Montreal.
Born in hardscrabble Alabama, the athlete parlayed his spectacularly comprehensive track-and-field talent into a scholarship at Ohio State, under the tutelage of a failed Olympian but inspired mentor Larry Snyder. Unfortunately, SNL veteran Jason Sudeikis’s compulsively modern body language and eagerness to please takes attention away from Owens’ battles against poverty, entrenched racism, the constant threat of violence, and occasional self-doubt. (Vancouver’s Amanda Crew is wasted as Snyder’s secretary.)
The tale’s power is further blunted by wooden exposition, fruitless sidetracks, and ludicrous casting. William Hurt and Jeremy Irons have some good moments on opposite sides of the argument for U.S. involvement in the Nazi games. But with villains as indelible as Adolph Hitler and his hideously twisted propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, why would director Stephen Hopkins shove handsome dudes in their 30s into those roles? Seriously. Much better is Holland’s Carice van Houton as Leni Riefenstahl, the Reich-approved filmmaker who used everyone for her own grandiose purposes.
The track scenes here are excellent and mesh well with what she shot for her epic Olympia. And Race scores at the end, following Owens home to a hero’s welcome and a major snub by the White House. In case you were wondering, there’s no American money in this movie, either. Because the best still isn’t good enough for some people.