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Stephen James (right) as Olympian Jesse Owens

Stephan James (right) as Olympian Jesse Owens

“RACE” My rating: B-

134 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“RACE”  2 1/2 stars   PG-13   134 minutes

Eighty years, a world war and a civil rights revolution later, the story of Olympic track star Jesse Owens still packs a wallop.

Here was an African-American athlete who had to endure racism at home yet became the standard bearer for the American Olympic team at the 1936 Berlin games, winning a record four gold medals.

Owens provided so conclusive a refutation of Nazi racial theories that Adolf Hitler left  the stadium so he wouldn’t be photographed congratulating a black man.

As you’d expect, “Race,” the cleverly-titled film about the ’36 games — is inspiring. But it is also insipid.

When it’s dealing with the big issues of history and race, this film from director Stephen Hopkins (“The Ghost and the Darkness,” “Predator 2” and a ton of TV) generally gets it right, placing Owens’ achievements against a background of discrimination and political upheaval that makes them all the more impressive.

On the level of personal drama, though, “Race” feels like a standard-issue sports movie: not exactly wince-worthy, but cliched and superficial.

But, hey, you can’t be too disappointed in a film that offers as one of its characters the great German documentarist Leni Riefenstahl.

The screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse alternates between Owens’ personal story — that of a high school track star who wins a scholarship to Ohio State University, sets world records and aims for the Olympics — and the societal and political convulsions of those years.

In the private story line Jesse (“Selma’s” Stephan James) gets tough love from track coach Larry Snyder (KC’s Jason Sudeikis, in his first serious dramatic role). He becomes famous, falls for a fancy lady, then thinks better of it and seeks forgiveness from the hometown gal (Shanice Banton) by whom he has a young daughter.

But it’s pretty obvious that training montages and an unremarkable romance didn’t inspire the screenwriters. What lights their fire is the chance to re-create the world of the 1930s.

For example, at a meeting of the U.S. Olympic Committee, member Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) squares off against chairman Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) over whether, by going to Berlin, American athletes are endorsing Naziism. The scene plays like a moral and intellectual battle of giants. (more…)

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