Race (2016) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements and language
Running Time: 134 min.
Cast: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt, Carice van Houten, Shanice Banton, Barnaby Metschurat, Eli Goree, David Kross, Jonathan Higgins, Tony Curran, Amanda Crew, Shamier Anderson
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Screenplay: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse
Review published February 23, 2016
Jesse Owens (James, Selma), son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, became a track star at his alma mater of Ohio State University, where Larry Snyder (Sudeikis, Horrible Bosses 2), a former promising track star himself, is head coach of the track team. Coach Snyder sees raw talent in the young man, and knowing that the 1936 Olympics isn't too far in the distance, he thinks that Owens is just the diamond in the rough the country needs to win Olympic Gold, showing him how to work on a proper start to the race, and adding the long jump to his repertoire. However, the Olympics is to be held in the lions' den of racial intolerance, Berlin under Hitler's regime, and the intent of the games under the leadership of Joseph Goebbels (Metschurat, L'Auberge Espagnole) is to show that the Aryan race is the supreme race in the world. With the International Olympic Committee conflicted about whether to boycott the games, and the NAACP requesting Owens also sit it out in protest, it's looking bleak for what might be the fastest runner in the world to find his claim to fame.
The title, Race, obviously has a double meaning for the context of this film, with Owens' own race just one more onus to place on his shoulders above and beyond just having to best some of the world's fastest runners from all over the globe. Not only this, but we also learn of Jesse Owens' personal life and relationship with his girlfriend Ruth (Banton, "Lost Girl"), with whom he has a young daughter, and to whom he tries to give whatever extra cash he can. However, with fame brings out other interested women, which threatens to also jeopardize his home life. It should be noted here that Race is made with the cooperation of the Owens family, which allows for some insider stories about the man to emerge, but in the sugar-coated way that keeps his sterling legacy still intact.
But Owens' is not front and center at all times, as the film also goes into the backstage dealings of the Olympics event. On the Nazi side, Goebbels (you know he's the villain he gets his own ominous music whenever he walks on the screen) is out on a crusade to show other races as inferior, employing the services of filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Van Houten, The Fifth Estate) to capture the momentous occasion of German athletes collecting gold medals while other countries are left in the dust. To further ensure Aryan victories, Goebbels tries to keep Jews and Negroes from being able to compete, while U.S. Olympic rep Avery Brundage (Irons, The Pink Panther 2) enters into an ill-defined business partnership with the Nazis as part of the bargain to keep the American team diverse, even though there was still a high degree of pressure to have the Jewish runners sit out their events.
Interestingly, for this relatively high profile biopic about an important African-American figure released during February, Black History Month in the United States, the producers hand the reins to Stephen Hopkins, a white man who isn't even American (born in Jamaica, but raised in England and Australia). Hopkins hasn't directed a feature film since 2007's horror flick, The Reaping, and his filmography includes such clunkers as A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, Predator 2, Judgment Night, and Lost in Space. Hopkins' mode of direction here is akin to Peyton Manning during Superbowl 50, trying to not to blow it while those around him with the tools and talent manage to keep things afloat. As such, though dealing with a great deal of potentially incendiary subject matter (one can imagine how much more potent the film would have been with Spike Lee behind the camera), many of the edges have been sanded off in order to make it palatable to appeal to the broadest of audiences possible.
The cast is a mixed bag, with Stephan James performing well in the physical aspects of Owens' depiction, but , while likeable and charismatic, not really delivering home the important emotional resonance when the runner is off the track. Jason Sudeikis impresses only because he's normally seen as just a comedic actor in his career; that he doesn't embarrass himself or bring the film down is perhaps the only notable thing to say about his performance in Race. Esteemed veterans William Hurt (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby) and Jeremy Irons are too far removed from the strong work they put in during the 1980s and 1990s, coming off more as thinly defined caricatures than fully fleshed out characters.
Although Race touches on important subjects and finally gives an American hero a long overdue theatrical feature about his life and achievements, the biggest knock on the movie as a whole is that it feels like a very conventional biopic. One can almost hear the boxes being checked off on the highlights from the crew behind the scenes in putting everything together narratively. The other detraction from the movie is that it often feels like it is made for 2016 (the dialogue is certainly anachronistic at times, such as the use of the term 'progressive' to denote liberal thinkers and modern phrases like, "Good luck with that"), as white people are either depicted as completely racist or as relatively color-blind as we might be today, though in reality, either extreme on the spectrum would have been quite rare to find in the mid-1930s (not even the then-progressive Franklin Roosevelt would extend an invitation to the White House to Owens, much less even acknowledge it).
The depiction of Nazi Germany during this period, while definitely employing some severely damaging tactics in its treatment of Jewish people (the Nuremburg Laws, most notably), hadn't quite ramped up to full-blown rousting up of entire neighborhoods goes up to shake hands with Hitler who has vacated, not wanting to be seen congratulating the 'inferior race'. It's a 20/20 hindsight kind of movie, trying to have its cake and eat it too, fudging the story for its clear-cut confrontation of good guys to cheer and bad guys to boo and hiss at in melodramatic fashion. Despite Owens' four Gold Medals, the most of any athlete in the 1936 Games, Germany still managed to come away without as much egg on their face as the film would have you believe, Germany nearly won more Gold Medals than the next two most successful countries combined, and thirty-three more total medals than the second place competitor, the United States.
At least it doesn't paint Americans as completely good and Germans as completely evil, as America has had a particularly shameful history when it comes to race relations itself (Owens is surprised to find that Germany's dorms are non-segregated as they are in the U.S., and he even had been embraced openly by German rival Carl 'Luz' Long (Kross, War Horse)). It's particularly effective when Owens is actually competing in Olympics glory, which means that the film manages to end with some good momentum, enough to make many Americans proud of Owens impressive achievements in the face of overwhelming adversity, and a degree of embarrassment that someone of such stature would have to wait so long into his life to get his proper accolades by the government (it wasn't until the presidency of Gerald Ford in the mid-1970s that the White House gave him a Medal of Freedom, followed by Jimmy Carter's Living Legend Award a year before his death in 1980).
Nevertheless, despite a broad-stroke, TV movie-esque approach that won't win it any awards, I'm going to give Race a recommendation for being an entertaining and watchable take on some important historical events, generating enough spark to likely make many viewers interested enough to find out more about the life, times, and history of Jesse Owens on their own terms in other mediums. While not really a Gold Medal effort, Race still manages to cross the finish line in fine style.
©2016 Vince Leo