Near the beginning of the recently-released “Race,” there’s an offhand remark that African American track and field athletes migrate toward that event because, at least at Ohio State University during the thirties, they weren’t allowed on the football team. It’s not elaborated on, though in the movie, there’s animosity between the two, but it was enough to make me scratch my head and realize that I’d learned something today.
In “Race,” Stephan James plays Jesse Owens, who was pretty much unbeatable at several track and field events, and at the beginning, is about to enroll in Ohio State to train under Jason Sudeikis, though he also has to worry about providing for his unemployed father, young daughter and the woman he hopes eventually to marry (Shanice Banten steadfastly standing by her man, at least most of the time). We see Stephan take his leave from home (his mom makes him a surprise blazer), then we see the end of a meet at the school. As Jason strides back to his office to look over applications for new recruits, a radio announcer helpfully provides his backstory, and the script wastes no time in establishing some popular movie coach commandments including:
1. Thou shalt keep a bottle of alcohol handy at all times.
2. Thou shalt be considered something of a joke among officials of the sport because of a past failure.
3. Thou shalt immediately give the main character a speech about how totally unimpressed they are with their talent.
4. Thou shalt have a major falling out with their trainee, (but the fireworks will end pretty quickly).
5. Thou shalt, despite initial antagonism, go on to become a mentor and teach valuable lessons in life, as well as in the sport of choice.
Which is to say, if you’ve seen the trailer or any Hollywood sports movie, you won’t be surprised with how “Race” unfolds. The main obstacle is the leader of an African American group asking Stephan personally not to compete in Germany because he feels it would send a powerful message in solidarity with the oppressed Jews of Nazi Germany. There is also some drama about an injury and friction between Stephan and Shanice. There’s another subplot about an American Olympic official (Jeremy Irons) engaging in a business deal with the Nazis prior to the competition. There’s tension over how much propaganda the Nazis will display at the Games, and also a German competitor (David Kross) who eventually befriends Stephan.
And then, the movie goes for the Oppression Trifecta. Not content to merely focus on racial discrimination in both the US and Germany, it adds on yet another subplot concerning Leni Riefenstahl’s (Carice van Houten) obstacles in filming the Olympics. You see, Leni just wants to make an inspiring and honest documentary, but the Nazis don’t take her seriously and they do what they can to keep her from filming Stephan’s triumphs. (Yes, folks, the Nazis weren’t merely racist, they were sexist, too!) And we learn that the White House was also racist, so it’s not just the Germans receiving a dressing down. In the end, Stephan triumphs, and proves all the doubters wrong, and the bad guys are forced to sit and marinate in their discontent. Everyone does a fair job, although most are playing stereotypes, including Barnaby Metschurat who plays Joseph Goebbels and must have been given the instruction to look as tight-lipped and constipated as possible. My audience was absorbed through the whole thing, including a group of preteens who didn’t utter a word. There was even some scattered applause at the end.