The ingredients of “Race,” a studiously uplifting biopic of Jesse Owens, the phenomenal star of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, remain as volatile as they were 80 years ago, although nowadays they are camouflaged. This true story of an impoverished black youth from the streets of Depression-era Cleveland who ascends to greatness by shattering track-and-field records and undercutting Adolf Hitler’s racist agenda is a safe, by-the-numbers tribute.
The movie smacks its lips when Hitler abruptly leaves the stadium after Owens (Stephan James, who played the civil rights activist and future Congressman John Lewis in “Selma”) wins one of his medals. Each of his four victories leaves Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), the Nazi minister of culture and propaganda, more grimly crestfallen.
There are many ways to tell Owens’s story, and “Race” (the two meanings of the title fit hand in glove) takes one of the least challenging. By confining its time span to only three years, from 1934 to 1936, the movie — directed by Stephen Hopkins (“The Reaping,” “Lost in Space”) from a screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse — doesn’t look beyond Owens’s rise and moment of glory when he was 22. (He died in 1980.)
If “Race” is a standard inspirational biopic that exalts the legend of an athletic hero, at least it doesn’t soft-pedal the racism that Owens encountered at every turn. Even after becoming world-famous, Owens is treated with contempt by many whites, including those in the athletic and political establishment. President Franklin D. Roosevelt never invited him to the White House.
The epithets and slurs casually hurled by people with hatred in their eyes sting like acid flung in your face. The movie makes sure we know these insults were constant and unending, and it shows their effect on Owens. In a telling moment, he has to be reminded to look people in the eyes during conversation.
Owens, although usually well-behaved, can at times also be defiant, willful and immature, and Mr. James adroitly conveys his hurt and half-buried anger in subversive flashes. No athlete wins a gold medal by accident. And the movie doesn’t conceal Owens’s ferocious competitive drive with a show of false humility. (Mr. James’s portrayal of a nuanced Owens is a far cry from the blank model of perfection embodied by Jamal Wallace, the scholar-athlete played by Rob Brown in the unfortunate 2000 film “Finding Forrester,” an offensive low point in Hollywood’s hypocritical portrayal of race.)
“Race” begins in a miserable slum in Cleveland, where the Owens family moved from Alabama when Jesse was 9, and follows him through high school to Ohio State University. In 1932, his high school girlfriend Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton) gave birth to a daughter. They married three years later, although his dalliance with another woman as he was becoming famous nearly shattered their relationship.
Once they’ve wed, the movie concentrates on sports and the fierce politics of the Olympics during the time of Hitler’s rise. In the United States, Owens found himself caught in a struggle between Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), president of the Amateur Athletic Union, who urged an American boycott of the ’36 Summer Games, and Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), a haughty industrialist who argued for American participation and stated that politics had no place in the Olympics. Brundage, whom the movie portrays as politically savvy but morally obtuse, negotiates the terms of American participation with Goebbels to allow limited participation by Jewish athletes.
Owens, under enormous pressure from both sides, vacillates, but eventually goes to Berlin. Before he makes his decision, there is a particularly sensitive moment when representatives of the N.A.A.C.P. visit and gently plead with him to boycott the Games. It is a wrenching choice because Owens’s very identity is synonymous with athletic excellence.
If “Race” does an efficient job of clarifying the issues, at no point do you feel that this is the whole story in all its complexity. Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), the free-spirited German filmmaker whose acclaimed two-part 1938 film “Olympia” documents the 1936 Games, flits in and out of the movie, yet the friction between her and the suspicious Goebbels is palpable.
Riefenstahl’s presence points up the visual flat-footedness that is the movie’s biggest flaw. The poetry found in her film is absent in the racing and jumping scenes in “Race,” and the movie’s overall palette is prosaic verging on drab.
What humanizes “Race,” though, is Owens’s relationship with Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), who, denied accreditation as his Olympic coach, was forced to book himself in steerage on the ocean liner carrying the American athletes across the Atlantic. Once Snyder was in Berlin, Owens demanded and secured his participation. The story of Snyder’s own thwarted athletic ambitions gives their bond a special poignancy; in a sense, Snyder is living through Owens, and Mr. Sudeikis’s tough, heartfelt performance conveys the intensity of his personal investment.
In the most sentimental moment, Carl “Luz” Long (David Kross), Owens’s German challenger for the long jump, befriends Owens, gives him crucial advice and expresses his loathing of the Nazi agenda. Although this dramatic moment almost feels too good to be true, it really took place.
“Race” reminds us that long before television elevated black sports heroes into gods, there were athletes like Jesse Owens who paved the way.
“Race” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) for language. Running time: 2 hours 14 minutes.