There is precisely one attempted coup de cinema in the Jesse Owens biopic Race, which otherwise defaults to the backlot handsomeness of other Great Men tributes from Hollywood. In 1935, Owens (Stephan James), then a Freshman sensation on the Ohio State University track team, returns to the locker room after practice and has a run-in with members of the unintegrated football team, who pepper him with racist taunts. Owens' enlightened coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), steps up and advises him to "block it out." He does. The camera zooms forward in a mesmeric stutter and the sound drops to white noise, like a train tunneling through a mountain.
This is a useful metaphor for Owens, who will win four Olympic gold metals a year later in Berlin. And it's a useful metaphor for Race, which cuts an aerodynamic swath through the headwinds of history. In the filmmakers' defense, the once-over-lightly approach to Owens' story may be the only way to tell it efficiently; the ugly politics surrounding the Berlin Games are difficult to parse, to say nothing of the discrimination Owens faced back home.
The screenplay, by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, Wiki-skims through the fascinating basics. The relationship between Owens and Snyder is central, but Race follows the pattern of so many sports biopics in which it's white patronage that makes black triumphs possible. Race also has the surprising nerve to connect Owens' story to that of Leni Riefenstahl, who's shown documenting the Games for her 1938 masterpiece Olympia. She's played with robust spirit by Carice van Houten, but a Jesse Owens biopic is an unusual place to celebrate Riefenstahl.