RACE (Stephen Hopkins). 130 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (February.

RACE (Stephen Hopkins). 130 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (February 19). See listing. Rating: NN

Stephen Hopkins’s Race is the sort of biopic that gives the genre a bad name. It’s a paint-by-numbers recounting of key events in the life of a genuinely inspirational person, presented with virtually no style or commentary. 

African-American track and field champion Jesse Owens made history when he won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, putting the lie to the Nazis’ myth of the Aryan superman and giving Depression-era Americans a hero to believe in. Stephan James, who played John Lewis in Selma, is nicely cast as Owens, radiating youth, strength and considerably more charisma than the real Owens appears to have had. 

James’s charisma could carry an entire picture if it were a more adventurous one than this. Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse’s script keeps reducing Owens to a pawn in other people’s games, pulling out for a macro view of geopolitics rather than getting into his head.

As if concerned that Owens’s athletic accomplishments might not take up enough screen time, Shrapnel and Waterhouse fold in two other plot threads: one in which stuffed shirts played by Jeremy Irons and William Hurt argue over whether America’s team should validate the Berlin Games by participating, as if we had no idea how things would ultimately turn out, and another in which dedicated filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) labours to make her documentary Olympia while that jerk Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat, basically playing Gollum) schemes to undermine her efforts. 

When the movie focuses on Owens’s relationship with Ohio State coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), Race is a decent sports picture. When it tries to puff itself up to important historical drama, it feels slapdash and cheesy, undermining its narrative with bizarre dramatic choices like suggesting that not getting to shake Hitler’s hand was somehow a low point for Owens.

Check out our interview with Stephan James here.

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