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This bio-pic of Jesse Owens is an OK but not great mash-up of sports inspirational, history and cultural critique

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Track athlete Jesse Owens is rightly well known for winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which were presided over by Adolf Hitler. A double victory — over competitors and over the white-supremacist ethos that fueled Nazism. Stephen Hopkins’ bio-pic fleshes out the story, beginning at Ohio State, where Owens (Stephan James) comes under the guidance of coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). The track victories come easy; living as a black man in America is harder. Hopkins also dips into Owens’ family life, but these sections, while well-meaning, feel underserved and sporadic. Of more dramatic interest are the political machinations within the U.S. Olympic Committee as it decides whether to participate in the 1936 games, and on what terms. (Besides Owens, there are also Jewish American Olympic athletes.)

The re-creation of the games is quite thrilling, despite the known outcomes. (The presence of German filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl as a relatively sympathetic character here made me want to seek out her film essay Olympia again.) And Race doesn’t shy away from race — the ironies of an institutionally segregated America taking umbrage at the Nazi’s racial exclusions are obvious — but it makes for a rather clunky film at times. The film’s first instinct is toward inspirational sports movie, and it’s a fair and satisfying example of that. (Many films in this genre already have an overcoming-racism component.) But the rote uplift undercuts what might have been a much sharper cultural critique.


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