Some real-life events couldn’t be more right for movies, and the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics was one of them.
In a compressed period of days, everything good about sports came into collision with everything evil in politics. All the repulsive villains in the upcoming global catastrophe gathered together in a single location, only to find their aspirations thwarted by a single man, the American track and field athlete, Jesse Owens.
The story of Owens and the Olympics is, in fact, so tailor-made for drama that the only creative risk is overdoing it, by making Owens into a saint or the United States spotless, just to emphasize the contrast with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.
Fortunately, “Race” doesn’t take that bait. Instead the movie gives us a complex picture of an America that had its own racial problems in 1936, as well as a flesh-and-blood portrait of Owens that leaves room for heroism but that also shows his lusts and temptations and a star-athlete’s ego.
This is a profound saga that makes for a great American movie, and the question that can’t help but spring to mind is why oh why was this not released in December, in time for Academy Awards consideration?
Here’s a black-themed film that would almost certainly have been nominated in multiple categories, which could have at least undercut, if not curtailed, the current (and I think specious) argument that Oscar voters are racially biased.
The one syllable title – “Race” – embodies much, the races Owens had to win, the racism that he had to endure and ignore at home; and the master-race madness that had infected a civilized European nation.
To succeed, Owens had to match his physical discipline with a moral and emotional discipline almost as rare as his athletic gifts – and even more rare in a man only 22 years old.
Stephan James, who played John Lewis in “Selma,” makes a satisfying and dimensional Owens. He copies his running style (lots of short steps, with very little hang-time in the air) and plays the man, not the legend.
His Owens is young and vulnerable, distracted by sex and fame – he is known as the world’s fastest man even before Berlin – and subject to outside pressure. It’s amazing, the power of drama to make audiences worry about an outcome that is part of the historical record, but “Race” accomplishes just that.
Director Stephen Hopkins doesn’t clean up the past, not even literally. Windows go unwashed, and the world of 1936 looks real and lived in. Part of the movie’s pleasure is that of time travel, the ability to see an earlier era and the people who lived in it.
“Race” gets the big things right, and in the story of the Berlin Olympics, nothing is bigger than the instant friendship that blossomed between Owens and his chief competitor in the long jump, Luz Long, who was German but no Nazi.
Those brief scenes between the two young actors Stephan James and David Kross linger in the mind and are worthy of Long’s own words, written to Owens just a few years later, when World War II had already started: “Someday find my son ... Tell him how things can be between men on this earth.”
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Stephan James, Jeremy Irons, Jason Sudeikis, William Hurt.
Director: Stephen Hopkins.
Running time: 144 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (thematic elements and language).