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Movie Review: 'Race'

By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - Finally. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Race is how very long it took until somebody made a movie out of this material, which absolutely begs for the movie screen and doesn't need much in the way of embellishment to come to life.

Sporting a graceful, double-meaning title, it's a biographical drama about legendary athletic superstar Jesse Owens, whose goal in life was to become the greatest track and field athlete in history.

The film details events leading up to 1936, a turbulent time, when the great African-American athlete found himself in the glaring historical spotlight on the world stage competing in Berlin in front of Adolf Hitler, using his blistering speed to win four gold medals and break several world records in track and field at the Berlin Olympic Games in the Fuhrer's showcase Olympic stadium with the whole world watching.

(2½ stars out of 4)

"There is no black or white," Jesse says at one point. "Only fast or slow. And for those ten seconds, you're free."

At one point, Hitler storms out of the stadium in the light of Owens' prowess and what it was doing to the Nazi dogma of Aryan superiority. Owens had been a student and athlete at Ohio State University in Depression-era America. Then it was on to the Olympics.

With expectations sky-high, Owens felt the pressure from family, friends, fans, and himself.

And at every step along the way, racial inequality and shameful prejudice rear their ugly heads.

Director Stephen Hopkins (Predator 2, Blown Away, Lost in Space, Under Suspicion, The Reaping) works from a script by husband-and-wife screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse that covers lots of ground, perhaps even a shade too much, with many background details that are relatively unfamiliar. But it doesn't ignite as much of a dramatic spark as the subject matter deserves.

And yet the strength of the basic story suggests that perhaps a straightforward narrative is the best approach.

But it does deal with Owens' conflicted feelings about whether he should ignore his strong will to compete and not go to the Olympics as a stand against the Nazis, his friendship with a German competitor, his complex relationship with his wife, and such shameful and outrageous institutional-racism occurrences as Owens being forced to ride a freight elevator in New York City to get to a banquet being held in his own honor.

Honor, indeed.

As you would expect, Hopkins and his screenwriters address such themes as tolerance, determination, and courage. And they are, sadly and surprisingly, quite relevant.

Owens is ably portrayed by Canadian actor Stephan James, while Jason Sudeikis, taking a dramatic excursion away from comedy and doing himself proud, plays Owens' Ohio State University coach, Larry Snyder, who mentors Owens on campus, then accompanies him to Berlin for the Olympic competition.

Carice von Houten plays celebrated documentarian Leni Riefenstahl, who featured Owens in her film, Olympia. Jeremy Irons, is Avery Brundage, the president of the American Olympic Committee and the liaison between the Committee and the Germans. He feels the United States should participate in the Games despite what is going on in Germany. And William Hurt portrays Jeremiah Mahoney, the president of the Amateur Athletic Union who disagrees with Brundage and feels the U.S. should boycott the Games.

The cast is effective enough, but it's the inherently dramatic and triumphant story that propels us back in time for a compelling history lesson.

So we'll train for 2-1/2 stars out of 4 for a gratefully received, enlightening biopic. Because it could use a little more electricity and pizzazz , Race doesn't quite take home the gold medal. But it's swell-made and powerful enough to earn a bronze.

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