By Kathryn Whitney Boole
The title of the film “Race” implies both meanings of the word. This movie is not simply a bio of the great runner Jesse Owens — it’s also a historical view of 1930s racial prejudice in the U.S., and of the rise of Hitler’s idea of a superior race during that time period. It is a story that sheds light on some critical political details that lie “under the radar,” much like last year’s “Bridge of Spies.”
The movie itself is beautifully made. It has a rhythm and a humanity that most biopics and historical films don’t capture. We identify with Jesse, with his wife and with the courage and persistence of his coach Larry Snyder, an Olympian himself who had never reached his promise as an athlete. We see the political machinations that allowed our country to send an Olympic team to the rising Nazi stronghold. The story shows how Jesse would have been already accustomed to the sense of superiority that he was to find prevalent in Nazi Germany, since he had faced similar bigotry in his own country.
Stephan James is truly believable as Jesse, both on a dramatic level and an athletic level. James had played basketball and volleyball, yet he had never been a track athlete. He insisted on filming most of the sprint scenes himself, and trained for months to achieve Jesse’s running style and expressions. He practiced intensely until that style came naturally. Jason Sudeikis is well cast as Jesse’s dedicated coach. Carice Van Houten (“Game of Thrones”) captures the strength, passion and resolve of the great filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl was fascinating herself — an extremely talented director who made propaganda films for the Nazi regime. Her films set the bar for future documentaries.
The score by Rachel Portman, for the most part, is a perfect accompaniment. Only in one spot is the volume a bit overpowering — at the opening of the 1936 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium in Berlin. Perhaps the filmmakers were trying to emulate Riefenstahl’s propaganda piece, “Olympia,” which was filmed of those Olympics at Hitler’s request.
“Race” was shot in the actual Berlin Olympic Stadium, and the movie does give the impression that the filmmakers watched Riefenstahl’s classic film for inspiration. In Riefenstahl’s documentary, tracking shots and slow motion were used for the first time to capture the elite athletes’ amazing skills. Her close-up footage of the real Jesse Owens in that film is of great historical and artistic value. Riefenstahl was pardoned after World War II — after she denied ever knowing that the Holocaust had taken place. She wrote a photographic book on the Nuba people of Africa, and in 2000 traveled there again to monitor the situation in Sudan. She went on to make great films well into her 90s and lived to the age of 101.
Films such as “Race” open your eyes to the fact that history is not simply what is written in your school history books. The real stories are much more complicated, colorful and full of human intricacies than they seem on the surface.
Rated PG-13. 134 minutes.
Kathryn Whitney Boole was drawn into the entertainment industry as a kid and never left. It has been the backdrop for many awesome adventures with crazy creative people. She now works as a Talent Manager with Studio Talent Group in Santa Monica. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For previously published reviews, see https://kwboole.wordpress.com.