Ostensibly, Race is the story of American athlete, Jesse Owens’ road to victory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. We see the young Owens (Stephan James) going to college, experiencing shocking racism, and being taken under the wing of his coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Race, however, is more than lashings of inspirational speeches and can-do spirit. It also serves as a behind the scenes glimpse at the machinations that go into putting on a sporting event in such a political hotbed that was Germany just before WW2.
Jeremy Irons plays Avery Brundage, the Olympics committee president who makes deals with Goebbels to tone down the national socialism and swastikas if the Germans want a chance of hosting the games. Goebbels does, and Snyder is one of the first to see the façade whilst walking through the backstreets of the city. Jesse’s placing at the Olympics sparks off a series of debates around the question of whether he should not go in protest of the country’s policies. Jesse is shown to be a reluctant spokesperson, who just wants to prove his worth against others in his field.
There’s so much to unpack that it feels like Race pushes things aside that could do with more exploration, such as Jesse’s decision to compete, to make way for superfluous moments such as Jesse’s dalliance with another woman whilst away from the mother of his child. Kudos for showing that the sportsman could be tempted, but it doesn’t add anything to the whole. Maybe a storyline like this would fare better in Race: The Miniseries.
Perhaps the bravest moment comes in the film’s final scene, after Jesse has been carried aloft as a hero, where Hollywood’s desire for a happy ending doesn’t get in the way of the sobering reality. He may have won gold, but Jesse Owens still had a long way to go in America.