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Bronze Medalist

Focus Features
 134 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed byStephen Hopkins 
Starring: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, believed that “the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning, but taking part.” However, Coubertin’s Olympic ideal didn’t even survive the first games in Athens in 1896, not after a Greek athlete won the marathon and became a national hero. Ever since, politics and the Olympic Games have been inseparable, as evidenced by the 1980 Miracle on Ice, widely regarded as the greatest sporting moment in U.S. history. Yet, nowhere was the influence of politics more evident than at the 1936 Berlin Games, and no one person brought all the political undercurrents to the surface as did four-time gold medallist Jesse Owens.


Owens’ accomplishments are legendary, so it’s somewhat surprising that no feature film has ever been made about him (there was a lightly regarded 1984 TV movie, The Jesse Owens Story). Now, 80 years after the Berlin Olympics, Focus Features and director Stephen Hopkins have tried to remedy the oversight in the aptly named Race. Yet, although the movie is well made, well-acted, and undeniably moving in spots, it still fails to definitively and accurately portray either Jesse Owens or the historical climate in which he competed.


To be sure, Hopkins and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse faced some tough decisions in scripting the film. Unlike many sports movies, in which paying undue attention to the surroundings and supporting characters detracts from the central drama, it’s impossible to fully appreciate what Owens did without understanding those surroundings. Like no athlete before him, Owens’ accomplishments came against a backdrop of at times vicious racial prejudice in the United States and far more virulent racism and anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany.


In general, Race does portray what Owens experienced, at times in ways mainstream film audiences aren’t used to seeing. When he arrived at Ohio State, members of the football team hurled racial epithets at him when he tried to use the locker room showers, and crowds at visiting stadiums became downright hostile. Owens was used to such treatment long before he arrived at Ohio State; in a telling scene, his coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) had to admonish Owens to look him in the eye rather than stare down at the ground when the two were talking.


After Owens silenced many of his detractors with his victories on the track, he then faced the toughest decision of his career, whether to compete in the 1936 games. Concerned community members, including members of the NAACP, asked Owens to boycott the games, and he didn’t make his final decision until hours before the team departed on an ocean liner for Germany. (Ironically, there too, Owens experienced racial discrimination, as the white athletes were put in first class while he and his black teammates were assigned communal cabins.)


The decision Owens faced mirrored the one that the U.S. Olympic Committee faced in determining whether to participate in the Berlin Games in light of the actions the Nazis were already taking against Jews and other ethnic minorities. Even in 1936, a boycott by the United States would have been a devastating blow for Hitler’s attempts at legitimizing his regime. Amateur Athletic Union President Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) wanted to boycott; industrialist Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) was willing to participate, as long as he was convinced that the Games would be fair and open. A trip by Brundage to Berlin resulted in a sham compromise; the Nazis agreed to remove the most obvious signs of their anti-Semitic brutality from the area, and Brundage personally received a thinly veiled bribe in the form of a contract to build the upcoming German Embassy in Washington.


Race covers the Olympic Committee’s decision in surprising detail, so much so that the audience might think that this is once again a case of framing the career of a famous black man from the point of view of black characters. However, once the film takes Owens to Nazi Germany, the wisdom of this scripting choice is evident. It soon beame clear to Brundage and to Larry Snyder (who accompanied Owens on the trip at his own expense despite being bypassed as Olympic track coach) that all the Nazis had done was to clean up those areas of Berlin that were most accessible to visiting Olympians and dignitaries, while business as usual went on a few blocks away.


Most telling as far as Owens’ story is concerned, Brundage and other U.S. officials forced the track team to remove two Jewish athletes from the relay team, freeing up one of the spots for Owens to win his fourth gold medal. However, Owens’ decision to participate wasn’t without a lot of soul searching, in some of Race’s most powerful scenes. The Olympic venue also provided the backdrop for the best sequence in the movie, the unlikely friendship that developed between Owens and German long jumper Luz Long (David Kross), whose advice helped Owens win the gold medal in that event.


These few moments provide much of the relatively small amount of insight into Owens the man. Race does hit his career highlights, including his romance with Ruth (Shanice Banton), the mother of his child, and his confidence and intense desire to win, as shown in his intense training regimen. Stephan James and Jason Sudeikis have a good rapport in their scenes together as well. But the movie doesn’t give the audience the degree of insight into Owens that it should.


One reason why Race at times plays like an extremely well made TV movie is the attention paid to some of the secondary characters. Legendary German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice Van Houten) is shown defying the orders of Joesph Goebbels himself to make sure that she recorded Owens’ events. While Riefenstahl is certainly worthy of a movie version of her own life, Race completely overstates her importance in Owens’ story. Moreover, non-film buffs may be confused about just who she is. On the other hand, those who are familiar with Riefenstahl may take issue with the way Race glosses over her past association with Hitler.


The film also paints a somewhat arbitrary picture of Avery Brundage, depicting him as somewhat of an idealist dupe, trying to put one over on Goebbels and in turn being conned himself. While not exactly a flattering picture of Brundage, it’s also a far cry from his actual character, a notorious anti-Semite whose involvement with the Olympic movement for decades to come was a constant source of strife with civil rights organizations.


Of course, as mentioned earlier, the overemphasis on white characters in civil rights films has been a sore point in Hollywood for years. Here, the criticism seems valid. Even the role of Larry Snyder goes beyond the usual coach/athlete dynamic to having Snyder serve as a second father to Owens, giving him advice about his temporary dalliance with a groupie. Nor is the movie’s plotline about Snyder’s needing Owens to be successful in order to keep his job really relevant here. Although the film has time to devote to Snyder’s employment security, it glosses over a telling incident at the end, when Owens had to go through the service entrance to attend a banquet in his honor at the Waldorf in New York.


A better movie than Race would have excised the Riefenstahl scenes completely and cut back on Snyder’s role. By so doing, the film could have devoted more time to showing what made Owens the dynamic personality that, by all accounts, he was.  Stephan James does a solid job portraying Owens, but he’s never given quite enough to work with. Race itself is certainly a worthwhile effort at portraying Owens, but, like many similar movies, it is eventually content to settle for a bronze medal instead of going for the gold.  

Read other reviews of Race:


Race (2016) on IMDb