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Race (Blu-ray Review)

20 May, 2016 By: John Latchem

Street 5/31/16
Box office $19.12 million
$29.98 DVD, $34.98 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG-13’ for thematic elements and language
Stars Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, Carice van Houten, William Hurt.

Calling a Jesse Owens biopic Race is a bit on the nose in terms of the double meaning it conveys, but it’s apropos. The movie not only covers the relevant moments in the career of the track-and-field icon leading up to his triumph in the 1936 Olympics, but also delves into the racism he encountered along the way, both in segregated America and, to a larger degree, Hitler’s Germany, which hosted the games.

To that end, while most of the film centers on the endearing friendship between Jesse (Stephan James) and his Ohio State coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), significant portions of the running time are devoted to a subplot involving U.S. Olympic honcho Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), who had his hands full trying to convince the U.S. committee not to boycott the games in protest of the Nazi regime.

Brundage, who would later become the only American elected to the presidency of the International Olympic Committee, caused a bit of a stir in his efforts by getting a bit too chummy with the German government along the way. Such a reputation might be inevitable when one finds himself hanging around the likes of Joseph Goebbels and propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (played by the “Game of Thrones” Red Woman herself, Carice van Houten).

The Brundage material might seem a bit excessive in a film ostensibly about Jesse Owens, but it adds a sense of scope to what Owens accomplished, and helps explain why two of his Jewish teammates were dropped at the last minute from the 4x100 relay, opening a slot for Owens to win a record-tying fourth gold medal in a single games.

The film is a bit of a spiritual cousin to 2013’s 42, which recounted Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball. A key difference here is that Owens’ skin color wasn’t an impediment to his ability to compete, but it did frame various political pressures surrounding him — namely, the optics of a black man competing in racially divisive Nazi Germany.

Another connection between the two stories involves Jackie’s older brother, Mack, who finished second to Owens in the 200-meter dash at the 1936 Olympics (though Race doesn’t really call attention to that bit of trivia).

Race has a tendency to be a bit obvious in its demonstrations of the absurdity of racism, but it is nonetheless effective in doing so while also presenting a winning sports drama, primarily because the performances are appealing and the inherent source material is so interesting.

Viewers looking for more information about the real-life Owens and his accomplishments will have to look someplace other than the Blu-ray, however. The disc contains just three short featurettes, which contain some moments of insight but otherwise aren’t very meaty.

“The Making of Race” is a four-minute glimpse behind the scenes. “Becoming Jesse Owens” is a four-minute piece about James’ preparation for the role. And “The Owens Sisters” is a three-minute tribute to Owens by way of his three daughters, who each get a chance to reflect on what kind of a man he was.

About the Author: John Latchem

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