Race Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Published Feb 19, 2016More often than not, movies about running are vehicles to talk about some form of persecution (think last year's McFarland USA, about an impoverished Mexican-American high school track team who become cross country champions, or 1981's Chariots of Fire, with its tale of religious and class-based prejudice in 1920s Great Britain).
Former television director Stephen Hopkins' (House of Lies, 24) latest movie is no different. Race tells the remarkable life story of African American track and field athlete Jesse Owens (played by Canadian up-and-comer Stephan James), a man who rose up the ranks of college sports during a time of great racial divide in the U.S., and was then thrust into the spotlight when his hard work and talents scored him an opportunity to compete at the Berlin Olympics three years before the start of WWII.
The film traces Owens' life from being accepted into Ohio State University to winning four medals and shattering records at the 1936 Olympics, a feat that flew in the face of the time's prevalent notions of Aryan superiority. To Hopkins and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse's credit, they're able to skilfully manoeuver the film, considering the social and moral complexities here while acknowledging the myriad moving parts outside of Owens' athletic feats that bring the whole story together. Indeed, Race spends sizeable chunks of its screen time depicting the political issues within the International Olympic Committee and debate behind boycotting the games, as well as German director-turned-propagandist Leni Riefenstahl's attempt to document its proceedings truthfully.
Disappointingly, especially given the sorry state of race relations in the U.S. right now, Race almost entirely omits the persecution Owens continued to face upon returning home from the games, save for one short scene showing him and his wife entering a party at a hotel thrown in his honour through a staff entrance, rather than the main lobby doors. In real life, Owens' struggle for acceptance continued long after the closing credits, so while Race is far from perfect, it still succeeds in part by showing how one person can be a catalyst for change.