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Film review: Race – rousing biopic on 1930s American Olympian Jesse Owens

Stephan James in hardworking role as the black athlete who won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, scotching Hitler’s dream of an Aryan triumph

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 May, 2016, 10:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 May, 2016, 10:00am

4/5 stars

As the rather blunt double-edged title suggests, Stephen Hopkins’ Race is about more than just athletics. A biopic of the American Olympian Jesse Owens, his remarkable achievements at the Berlin 1936 games – winning gold in the 100m, 200m, long jump and 4x100m relay race – feel almost secondary to the real issue: that Owens, as a black athlete, went and stole the show in front of the watching Adolf Hitler.

While Race has all the hallmarks of a traditional Hollywood sports biopic, as Jesse (Stephan James, who featured in Selma ) works towards qualifying for the games, the film’s political context deepens its meaning. Scripted intelligently by Anna Waterhouse and Joe Schrapnel, early scenes as the world grows fearful at the inexorable rise of the Nazis are chilling, embodied by the tight-lipped performance of Barnaby Metschurat as the Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.

With James offering a hardworking turn as Owens, Hopkins calls on some fine actors for support, including William Hurt, Jeremy Irons and Carice van Houten, who excels as the German filmmaker and Hitler favourite Leni Riefenstahl. But perhaps the most surprising contribution comes from Jason Sudeikis, best known to audiences for hit comedy We’re the Millers, for his gutsy turn as Owens’ coach Larry Snyder.

Arguably, Owens’ own personal life – young fatherhood and a childhood sweetheart – isn’t quite given the depth it deserves. It’s also far more conventional than Hopkins’ last biopic, 2004’s The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. But as a way of melding sport and politics, biopic and historical document, Race is an impressive achievement – and one to be savoured.

Race opens on May 5

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