By Will Barber Taylor
Race tells the story of James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens (Selma’s Stephan James), a student and athlete in Depression-era America, who bears the weight of family expectations, racial tension at Ohio State University, and his own high standards for competition.
Jesse finds a savvy coach and stalwart friend in Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) – who is unafraid to push the young man to his limits. Bolstered by the love and support of Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton), with whom he has a young daughter, Jesse’s winning ways in intercollegiate competitions earn him a place on the U.S. Olympics team. That is, if there is to be a team going to the 1936 Olympics at all…
The American Olympic committee debates a boycott in protest against Hitler, with committee president Jeremiah Mahoney (Academy® Award-winner William Hurt) and millionaire industrialist Avery Brundage (Academy® Award-winner Jeremy Irons) leading the opposing arguments. When Brundage prevails and the U.S. team participation is confirmed, Jesse enters a racial and political minefield after he arrives in Berlin with his fellow athletes.
Race is, like We Are Colony’s other recent output Imperium, an important film that looks at one of the central concerns of American society – race. Whilst Imperium dealt with the modern white supremacist movement Race looks at historic racism not only in America but throughout the world during the 1930s. Yet Race isn’t solely about the examination of racism and challenges to it during the build up to World War Two, it is also the examination of one man’s determination to achieve his dream. Yet the two aspects of the film’s success cannot be separated – the racism is portrayed through Jesse Owen’s viewpoint making it that more powerful and the portrayal of Owen’s as a strong, central character would not be completed without the depiction of the world he lived in.
The film itself would not function without the stellar performance delivered by Stephan James. James brings Owens to life fully; he isn’t a remote sporting icon but a relatable, real person. Early in the film, Owens has a quiet moment with his father (Andrew Moodie) before setting off for university. James plays the scene perfectly and his brief, sad recognition of the opportunities he has that his father didn’t is touching. Similarly, his chemistry with Shanice Banton as Owen’s girlfriend and later wife Ruth Solomon. James and Banton are electric together and make Owen’s personal life come alive; his humility and recognition that Ruth mean more to him than his prestigious sporting titles is beautifully demonstrated during a scene when Owens returns to Ruth after spending time preparing for the Olympics. Throughout the film, James’ balancing between the public Owens and the private keep the film together. He is the beacon from which the rest of the film reflects.
The supporting cast is excellent as well with Jason Sudeikis giving a remarkably sombre and meaningful performance as Larry Snyder. Sudeikis and James’ Owens inhabit the heart of the film – it is Snyder’s desire to see Owens achieve what he was unable to that drives a great deal of the action in the film.
Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage is a great inclusion. Though Irons isn’t the focus of the film, his cigar chomping, hard bitten Brundage helps secure that the US attends the games and his fierce battle against the restrictive Nazi rules is brilliantly brought to life by Irons. This is especially seen in one scene when, after Hitler refuses to give Owens his gold medal in person, Irons glares straight at Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) and demands that “the Furher meets all the gold medallists or none of them”.
The cinematography throughout is stunning with the deprivation of Cleveland’s black community expertly shown and sharply contrasted by the gloss of Ohio University. Stephen Hopkins brings his usually sophisticated eye for detail to the table and recreates 1930s America showing wealth and poverty side by side.
Race is a fundamentally important film. It demonstrates the struggles that black people have overcome in America whilst also showing the personal story of one of America’s greatest sporting icons. It portrays the idiocy of forensically and expertly dismantling the twisted backdrop of American and German society at the time. It is a film worth seeing not just because it is a great piece of film making but because it also reminds us that no matter what the odds, the human spirit endures and succeeds.
With thanks to We Are Colony. You can watch Race on We Are Colony here.