Efficient biopic from Stephen Hopkins, starring Stephan James as Olympian Jesse Owens
If ever there was a sports figure deserving of their own biopic then it’s Jesse Owens, the African-American hero of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Four gold medals – in the 100m, 200m, 4 x 100m relay and the long jump – is a remarkable haul; even more so when you consider where he was, and who was watching. As the rather blunt title suggests, Stephen Hopkins’ sturdily constructed film Race isn’t just about athletics.
Playing Owens is Canadian actor Stephan James, who recently appeared in Selma, and does a credible job of bringing the Olympian to life. The early biographical details – born in Alabama, educated in Ohio – are briskly dealt with. Instead, it’s his rise as a runner that’s focused on, with Owens gaining the help of his coach at Ohio State University, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). In truth, obstacles are few and far between as he flies off the blocks, setting world records whilst touring the national circuit.
With Owens’ personal life (including an out-of-wedlock child) given disappointing short shrift, the narrative is more concerned with the US Olympic Committee’s debate about abandoning the Berlin Games (awarded to Germany before the Nazis rose to power). Urging them to stay in is construction magnate and future IOC president Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), who even journeys to Berlin ahead of the Games, where he witnesses Nazi persecution first-hand.
These scenes are chilling, most notably when he encounters Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) and Leni Riefenstahl (Game of Thrones’ Carice van Houten), Hitler’s favourite filmmaker, who would later document the event. Back home, Owens is implored by the NAACP to boycott the Games, but his decision to compete – and his success in front of Adolf Hitler (Adrian Zwicker) – proves far more powerful. Credit Hopkins for maintaining the balance between politics and sport, showing that the two do mix after all.
General release from Fri 3 Jun.