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Mainstream Chick with Greta Gerwig @Middleburg

Race

Race posterIt’s a shame that Race, an inspiring biopic about American track-and-field superstar Jesse Owens competing in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and Eddie the Eagle, an inspiring biopic about an awkward British ski jumper competing against all odds in the 1988 Olympics in Calgary are both hitting theaters at about the same time (with Race first out of the gate). Both are good. Neither is great. Race has far deeper political, historical, and sports-related significance, and despite some dramatic license (and omissions), has a story and supporting characters based in fairly well-documented fact.

Stephan James (who played a young John Lewis in last year’s under-appreciated movie Selma) is well-cast as the charming and talented Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at Hitler’s 1936 Olympics – including one for a relay event in which he was asked to replace one of two Jewish runners cut from the team at the last minute, ostensibly to appease Hitler, the world’s most notorious, murderous anti-semite. The movie gives somewhat superficial treatment to a complex set of events and sentiments about what was happening with racist policies in the U.S. and Aryan superiority policies in Hitler’s Germany, though it is the context in which the main story unfolds: Owens’ quest to become the best runner in the world, with the help of his mentor and coach at Ohio State University, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). I’ve seen mixed reviews of Sudeikis’s perfomance, but I think he held his own. The interactions with Jesse and his coach often veer into cheesy, cliché territory, but their scenes together also give the movie its biggest dose of humor and heart.

Race is reminiscent of the 2013 biopic 42, about baseball great Jackie Robinson becoming the first African American player to break into the Major Leagues in 1947. That movie, too, had its flaws, but the story was still deserving of a fresh tell for the younger generations who may have missed out on that important chapter of American and sports history. I vaguely remember watching the television movie, “The Jesse Owens Story” in the 1980s and wanting to learn more about him. If Race can do the same for today’s kids, then the movie will have achieved something special, even if it lumbers rather than sprints across the finish line.

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