The story of Jesse Owens’ four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics gets the mahogany biopic treatment here, with a handsomely-mounted yet comically cliched film – however, the brilliance of its subject and the belittling of the Nazis elevate the message above the material.
Race*** follows Owens (a likeable performance from Stephan James) from his humble beginnings as he leaves home in Michigan amid clunky, expository dialogue (“We can’t afford that Ma,”) and joins Ohio State University. Overcoming racist attitudes – the football team won’t let black folks in the locker room – he soon earns the admiration of hard-bitten, hard-drinking coach Larry Snyder (a tentative foray into straighter acting for Jason Sudekis).
Coach soon puts his own failures as an Olympian behind him to support Jesse’s bids to qualify for the American team, breaking world records in all events as he does so – note the long jump is quaintly called the Broad Jump back in those days.
Also in those days was the rising spectre of Nazism, with many calling for the American team to boycott the games. Jeremy Irons gives it full ham as Avery Brundage, the American tycoon who goes over to Berlin to argue with Goebbels and meet the film maker Leni Riefenstahl.
All this real life stuff has a faintly comic ring to it, with Carice van Houten’s spirited Riefenstahl declaring “I’m happier in man’s clothes,” and battling with Goebbels to get the footage she needs for her film, which will of course become the mighty Olympiad, clips of which this film gratefully and wisely employs.
But you can’t argue with Owens’ feats and it’s enjoyable watching Hitler and Goebbels squirm in their seats as the Nazi ideal is upturned by Owens’ extraordinary exploits. Of course, it gave America’s own racists food for thought, too.
There’s a Jewish subplot involving athletes I didn’t know about, and a friendship Owens struck up with a German rival, “Luz” Long, which must have irked the Nazis to distraction.
So while Stephen Hopkins’ film is as cheesy as a team photo hanging in a themed sports bar, you can’t deny the power or importance of its story, both as sporting legend and document of racism.