Some real-life events couldn’t be more right for movies, and the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics was one of them. In a compressed period of days, everything good about sports came into collision with everything evil in politics. All the repulsive villains in the upcoming global catastrophe gathered together in a single location, only to find their aspirations thwarted by a single man, the American track and field athlete, Jesse Owens.
The story of Owens and the Olympics is, in fact, so tailor-made for drama that the only creative risk is overdoing it, by making Owens into a saint or the United States spotless, just to emphasize the contrast with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Fortunately, “Race’’ doesn’t take that bait. Instead the movie gives us a complex picture of an America that had its own racial problems in 1936, as well as a flesh-and-blood portrait of Owens that leaves room for heroism but that also shows his lusts and temptations and a star-athlete’s ego.
The one syllable title — “Race’’ — embodies much, the races Owens had to win, the racism that he had to endure and ignore at home; and the master-race madness that had infected a civilized European nation. To succeed, Owens had to match his physical discipline with a moral and emotional discipline almost as rare as his athletic gifts — and even more rare in a man only 22 years old.
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