“Out there, there ain't no black and white, there's only fast and slow. Nothing matters, not colour, not money, not even hate,” Stephan James, who plays Jesse Owens—the American athlete whose achievements conferred him a near mythical stature in the world of sports—in the cleverly-titled biographical sports drama Race states when requested to pull out from the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Race is about the journey of a man who believed that at the end of the day what matters is how fast you clocked. Owens challenged racial prejudice with the only weapon he possessed—speed—and converted boos and jeers into cheers to emerge a champion whose accomplishments were matched by few.
Donning the shoes of the racing champ is an earnest James, who shot to fame by playing civil rights activist John Lewis in the Oscar-nominated historical drama Selma. Director Stephen Hopkins, whose last large screen outing was the Hilary Swank-starrer The Reaping, does not bother to present the rising of Owens from an impoverished Ohio neighbourhood, but takes the viewers straight to the start of his glory years. When we first meet Owens, he is all set for his life-changing journey to Ohio State University where he would come in contact with Larry Snyder (a convincing Jason Sudeikis)—the quintessential cinematic coach with an impeccable knack for spotting talent but has scant regard for everything else, including conventional training methods.
Snyder knows Owens is a 'natural', but needs to be chiselled because of his ham-fisted methods. The duo trains hard while battling sneers and stares to help Owens, nicknamed 'Buckeye Bullet', own 'the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport' at 1935 Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he set three world records in 45 minutes.
While Owens sweat it out in the field, an ideological war is on between the Avery Brundage (brilliantly essayed by Jeremy Irons), a haughty industrialist who acts as a go-between the Reich and the US and Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), president of the Amateur Athletic Union who did not want the US to participate in the Berlin Olympics.
The film also serves as a commentary of the socio-political milieu in Germany under Hitler and the preposterous moral uprightness of the US, which wanted to pull out of the Berlin Olympics as a mark of protest against the Nazi cruelty against the Jews while its own 'coloured' face discrimination in their own land.
The transformation of Owens from a frightened newcomer at the largely-white Ohio varsity who talks with downcast eyes, to the star who stands up for his disgraced coach is inspiring. James is convincing as a confused Owens torn between his compulsion to pull out of the contest to support his 'race' and participate in the race to prove to the Nazis and their Führer that their superiority is phantasmic.
Imagined or real, a sports drama, irrespective of the game played, employs the formulaic pattern of an underdog teaming up with a washed out coach to prove the world wrong. Race is no different. We see the champion reaping glory—four Olympic gold—and striking friendship with a defiant German athlete, Carl Ludwig 'Luz' Long, who helps Owens correct his jumps and Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), the filmmaker who was roped in to document the glory of Reich finding her hero in Owens while the coach battles his personal demons. But what the director fails to capture while juxtaposing the games with the politics of the games is the spirit of competition; it all looks so easy for Owens.
The film, despite a few flaws, is a fitting tribute to an American hero who the White House refused to acknowledge and who was not allowed a front door entry to an event organised to honour him.
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Cast: Stephan James, Jeremy Irons, Jason Sudeikis, William Hurt