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“Race”

Takes the Silver

2 & ½ popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic

 

If only we were as proficient at correcting our social sins as we are at chronicling them. My case in point is director Stephen Hopkins’s “Race,” a dutiful but dramatically average telling of the heroic odyssey that made Jesse Owens a worldwide sports legend. We, in the more enlightened nooks and hollers, are properly abashed at the stumbling blocks Mr. Owens had to hurdle on his way to glory in the 1936 Berlin Olympiad. Yet, beneath our conceit, we shiver in the knowledge that there are still cave dwellers in those intolerant areas loath to celebrate humanity’s égalité.

So we watch respectfully, basking in this one victory, a stepping stone that etched away at the hard granite of outrageous fear that fuels prejudice, and wonder just how many superhuman achievements it takes to make people act, well, just human. Even good old Aesop himself couldn’t make up a better parable than this one. War is in the air. In a few years we’ll be sending young men, segregated into black and white, to fight and die. The saber-rattling Nazis have made Aryan supremacy their raison d’être. But you see, there’s this runner, Jesse Owens.

 

Born in Alabama and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, he would ultimately be known as the fastest man on Earth. Much to the inconvenience of the white superiority crowd, Jesse just happened to be black, a fact that proved of no little inconvenience to Jesse himself. The naysayers, for whatever feverish reasons that ruled their blinding bigotry, weren’t going to make it easy. Originally just a kid who loved to run and dreamt of raising a family in the country that had promised him his civil rights, he is forced to live his life in the burning crucible of history.

 

Then again, if he were born in what the apocryphal blessing calls “uninteresting times,” we’d have no epiphany, no great watershed and no scolding reminder that indeed there is still much work to be done. Thus his story is told, accurately by most accounts, save for just a few dramatically expedient exaggerations. Problem is, it’s much better history than it is biography. Stephan James, who treads carefully and reverently in Mr. Owens’s legendary track shoes, exudes little between-the-lines artistry, allowing for very few flourishes of character insight.

 

It’s a double-edge sword. Granted, the fortitude to persevere against seemingly unconquerable forces determined to dash your dreams is certainly character enough for any man or woman. Still, while we want our past faithfully recounted, we also want it told in poetic, fairy tale terms. But alas, and good thing, too, these days Hollywood is much more careful in its elaborations. Given such narrow limits, the challenge to the contemporary filmmaker is to conjure the artistic yet honest magic required to gild the truth.

 

Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen here. As a result, if the track and field star was indeed compelling outside of his storied travail, it remains unknown to us. Otherwise, working from a script by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, the director paints an informative backstory to the central tale, responsibly detailing the winds of history and partially ameliorating some of his shortcomings with a bit of elucidative muckraking.

 

Now, there has never been conclusive proof that Avery Brundage, who headed the American contingent of athletes in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was responsible for excluding Jewish runners Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller from their relay event so as not to embarrass Hitler. But Hopkins, boldly sewing that controversy into the greater fabric of the plot, delivers on the implied promise of “Race’s” double entendre title. Here Brundage is deemed not only culpable, but, for alleged business favors hinted at by the Nazis, a de facto conspirator. Yipes!

 

Jeremy Irons as Brundage is near Dickensian as the face of upper crust arrogance and tacit anti-Semitism, all in service to what Kipling smugly coined The White Man’s Burden. In contrast, struggling to extricate himself from the pawn-like status those powers that be would relegate him to if left unchecked, Mr. James acquits himself well enough, albeit unexcitingly. The real high-relief stuff is left to his Ohio State coach, Larry Snyder, entertainingly emoted by Jason Sudeikis.

 

This is no “Chariots of Fire” (1981), the Academy Award-winning biopic that investigated racial convolutions in the 1924 Olympics. The running scenes, while realistic, pale in comparison. There is not the exquisiteness of art direction, momentous music or the pomp and pageantry of competition. Nevertheless, the attention to detail is admirable and, given its humanistic message, we’ve no doubt that “Race” has its heart in the right place from start to finish.

“Race,” rated PG-13, is a Focus Features release directed by Stephen Hopkins and stars Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis and Jeremy Irons. Running time: 134 minutes