‘Race’ a stirring account of Jesse Owens’ inspiring story

Stephan James as track & field superstar Jesse Owens
Stephan James as track & field superstar Jesse Owens

The problem with biopics on famous folk is that the ending isn’t surprising. It’s a filmmaker’s risk. The new movie Race aims to enlighten those unfamiliar with the legendary story of athletic star Jesse Owens, “whose quest to become the greatest track and field athlete in history thrusts him onto the world stage of the 1936 Olympics, where he faces off against Adolf Hitler’s vision of Aryan supremacy,” according to the film’s official synopsis.

I enjoyed The Jesse Owens Story, a 1984 Emmy award-winning television biopic that starred Dorian Harewood as Jesse Owens. The made-for-TV movie portrayed Owens in his later years, reflecting back on his earlier heroics.

Race, which opened nationally February 19, focuses on Owens’ 1936 Berlin Olympics performance. The film was made with the blessing of the Owens family, and the German track scenes were filmed on location at Olympic Stadium in Berlin.

Director Stephen Hopkins (Lost in Space) showed Owens’ (Stephan James) ‘me against the world’ moments in breathtaking high-def. One spectacular sequence came when he first walked into the German Olympic stadium; dwarfing the spectators and making the track star feel larger than life.

Otherwise, the film fleshes out Owens’ story by giving glimpses into his pre-Olympic life, including: Owens being the first of 10 children to attend college; his life as a student at Ohio State, where he broke records at the 1935 Big Ten track championships a year before the Olympics; and his family life, including his father’s unemployed status in the height of the Depression.

Stephan James stars as track and field hero Jesse Owens
“Race,’ starring Stephan James, opened Feb. 19.

Some events in the film might have happened in real life, while others, such as an NAACP representative visiting his home to convince Owens not to go to Berlin, was definitely added for dramatic purposes.

Harewood portrayed Owens as a man who sometimes preferred to go along to get along, while James’ portrayal of Owens shows a pent-up individual who needed just one more racial indignity to put him over the edge.

Barnaby Metschurat plays Adolf Hitler henchman Joseph Goebbels, the bad, bad man in the film. He made dictator Hitler look like a marshmallow. He wasn’t over-the-top, and whether or not Hopkins intended it, the viewer gets the impression that Goebbels and not Hitler was in charge of Germany at the time. James and Jason Sudeikis (who played Owens’ coach Larry Snyder) however, provided the film’s best character interactions, often providing light moments even in the face of adversity.

After the advanced screening of the film, the MSR spoke with a few moviegoers.  University of Southern California grad Dominque Byrd, who played football there, said he liked the film a lot, and especially liked how the track scenes took place at the same L.A. coliseum he once starred in. “It’s humbling to know that he carried the whole race on his back,” he said of Owens.

“It was very well done,” added moviegoer Dessie Richmond.

The film was an educational experience for Sarah Healy: “This is a story of triumph over adversity,” she told the MSR afterwards, adding that she wasn’t aware of Owens’ Olympic feats. She especially liked how Hopkins, at the end of the film, tied in real-life facts on Owens, who died in 1980 at age 66. One of the facts included was of Owens not being recognized at the White House for his performance until President Gerard Ford awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the mid-1970s.

Byrd noted that Race depicted “American arrogance,” as U.S. officials debated whether or not to boycott the 1936 games, and by a margin of a few votes tipped the decision to go to Germany. He pointed out that as America then protested against Hitler’s Aryan philosophy against Jews, the country regularly discriminated against Blacks.

It isn’t a complete story, but Race is worth seeing, especially for those who don’t much about Owens or that time in America.

“A lot of young people should see that film,” advised Richmond.


Rated PG-13 for profanity, mature themes and ethnic slurs
In English and German with subtitles
Running time: 134 minutes
Distributor: Focus Features


Race opened nationwide February 19. Check local listings for show times. Go to www.focusfeatures.com/race for more information about the film.


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.