Though it won’t have much of a shelf life, Race is a great movie to see with a large crowd. Even a cinema curmudgeon with rigid standards for movie theatre etiquette like myself, couldn’t help but be swept away by the audience’s clapping and cheering at the garish AMC theatre where I saw the film. I suspect that most of my fellow viewers that evening watched much of the film, as I did, through misty eyes, even if only because the true story of Jesse Owens, a black man from Ohio who humiliated the Nazis during the Berlin Olympics in 1936, is so irresistible.

Race is helped, too, by its unexpected timeliness. With the controversy raging over the impending Academy Awards ceremony, which for the second year in a row will honor only white actors, it’s hard not to find certain parallels in Owens’s story. One of the film’s central conflicts is between those who want the United States to boycott the Olympics, believing that showing up would implicitly condone Nazi policies, and those who want to keep sport separate from politics. Remarkably, both sides in the debate are shown to have valid points. The head of the U.S. Olympic Committee (William Hurt) tries to persuade the voting body to withdraw from the Olympics, and he is portrayed as heroic for sticking to his ideals. Others feel that attending the games and winning is the better option. Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons, in a tricky role) is sent to Berlin as a representative, to see whether the Nazis will tone down their ethnic cleansing rhetoric while the games are underway, but he ends up striking a deal with them, agreeing to lobby on their behalf.

Of course, had the U.S. withdrawn, there wouldn’t be any story, and Jesse Owens wouldn’t be the hero he is today. But at the same time, the film saves itself from myopia by landing on a perfect denouement that celebrates Owens’s achievement while solemnly noting how far our country still was—and is—from achieving true equality. An unequivocally happy ending just wouldn’t have been appropriate when, at the film’s close, the horrors of World War II are yet to come.

Now, Hollywood is not Berlin and AMPAS is not the Third Reich; but the debate over withdrawal versus attendance does bring to mind Spike Lee’s decision not to attend the upcoming Oscar ceremony to accept his honorary award, a decision that has (for some unknown reason) become as controversial as the nominations themselves. As Race reveals, Owens (played by Stephan James) nearly made the same decision, even after the U.S. Olympic committee voted not to pull out of the competition. A representative of the NAACP even shows up at his house urging him not to go to Berlin, as his athletic prominence would surely make his absence noticed (as Lee’s absence will be). Urged by his coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), who can’t help living his own Olympic dreams through Owens, he ultimately decides to go. It’s no spoiler that he left Berlin with four gold medals, thoroughly vexing the plans of Hitler and Propaganda Minister Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) to use the event to bolster Germany’s image internationally.

Without the context surrounding the film, and without an auditorium of receptive viewers, Race probably wouldn’t play as well. The film runs on pure emotion, but doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. Though James is excellent as Owens, whose confidence and sense of self-worth grow over the course of the film, Sudeikis can’t quite squeeze into this dramatic role. Every gesture, every facial expression feels calculated, as if he’s straining to appear natural instead of simply being in the moment. Aside from that, the film is too long and rather unfocused. Conflicts are introduced and resolved in the space of minutes while supporting characters drift in and out of the narrative. It is interesting to see the film’s portrayal of Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), director of Triumph of the Will and Olympia—the latter of which documents Owens’s victory—but for such a complicated figure she comes across rather simplistically, and her character is ultimately tangential to the story. So if you’re looking for something with aesthetic value, you’re better off watching Olympia. If you’re just looking to be moved, Race should do the trick.

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