Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Stars: Amanda Crew, Andrew Moodie, Barnaby Metschurat, Carice van Houten, David Kross,Eli Goree, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, Michèle Lonsdale Smith, Shamier Anderson, Shanice Banton, Stephan James, William Hurt
Released: June 3rd, 2016
Race has good intentions. That is probably the best thing one could say about it which is unfortunate given its subject matter. One hears about the epic talent of Jesse Owens from the time they’re in elementary school, when racing one another at recess was just something you did. With this myth and the still spectacular accomplishments Owens achieved as a track and field star very much ingrained in the history of not just American sport, but America in general it’s somewhat surprising a movie about the man hasn’t already been made. And so, Race has good intentions, clearly. Regrettably, that is all it has going for it though, as director Stephen Hopkins (a spotty director who has credits on well-renowned TV series, but whose feature credits are rather lousy) infuses his film with little to no energy leaving audiences to feel more as if they’re walking through a Jesse Owens exhibit at a museum than becoming immersed in his life experiences. The film is a by the numbers biopic that takes us through the year of 1933 when Owens begins attending Ohio State up through the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The film gets points for not being your traditional cradle to grave biopic as it never dwells on the fact Owens was one of ten children and only notes his penchant for running by referencing his equaling of the world records in the 100-yard dash and long-jump competitions while still in high school. Of course, it is this achievement that would gain Owens national attention and the attention of numerous colleges from which Owens would choose Ohio State due to the reputation of their coach, Larry Snyder, for being the best there was. Did I lose you over those last few sentences? Dolling out information that is undoubtedly interesting, but as no soul or feeling were extracted from them you also tended to feel nothing. Well, guess what? That is pretty much how the movie will make you feel as well. It plays out, hitting all the expected beats of a film about a famous figure, sports or any kind of star, and then slogs to its conclusion before delivering the obligatory note cards over real-life pictures of our main characters that tells what the rest of life held for them. All interesting, but never invigorating.
Beginning in the fall of 1933 in Cleveland, Ohio we come in contact with Owens (Stephan James) as he readies himself to leave for college. We’re still clearly in the bowels of the great depression even if, historically, it was on its last leg. In this first scene, as Owens mother fits him with a suit jacket he didn’t expect to possess she scans over a scar on his chest and makes a comment about how she once thought she was going to lose him, but that “God spared him for a reason.” This type of prophesying sets up Owens as an exception to the rule, someone who is already destined for greatness. We are then hurriedly introduced to Coach Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) as someone who isn’t holding up to his promise as the head track and field coach at his Alma mater. These quick, but precise introductions more or less tell us the arc of the characters and what obstacles they might overcome as well as what predictions they might fulfill. From here the details are filled in at a rather expected pace. Owens is set to be married to Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton) whom he already has a daughter with and he ventures to Ohio State with Dave Albritton (Eli Goree) where they immediately come face to face with the racial tensions of the time. At this point in time African Americans were still not allowed to play football, but shared a locker room with the team. One can imagine the confrontations. The double entendre in the title becomes apparent here as the film begins to then take an interesting albeit confusing turn. Instead of remaining solely focused on the trials and tribulations Owens would face as he trained, became the most prominent runner in the nation, and eventually leading to his dominance at the 1936 Olympic games writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (Frankie & Alice) decide to divide their narrative between developing the Owens and Snyder relationship and the U.S. Olympic Committee given potential conflict between the States and Germany with the restrictions placed on the Berlin games concerning minorities and Jewish athletes. Jeremy Irons and William Hurt show up as Avery Brundage and Jeremiah Mahoney, respectively, to debate whether or not the U.S. should pull out of the games.
While it is understood how each story compliments the other and how parts of each don’t make sense without parts of the other Race begins to feel like two separate movies quite quickly. The cause and effect of what the Olympic Committee decides to do and the ultimate fate it lays upon our protagonist are intrinsic to how history played out, but a movie doesn’t have to show us the deliberations and the meetings taken between committee members to give us this information. The debate, deals, and ultimate decision that pushed for America to compete in the Berlin games is undoubtedly a fascinating story, but it isn’t the story Race claims to be telling and so instead of getting a through and through biopic of Owens and who this guy was as a man, husband, father, and athlete we have half a movie that highlights his relationship with his inspiring white coach and little more.
It is a half hour before we even see Owens run in competition and rather than finding a groove with the races and Owens style as well as his particular ticks when it came to preparation and performance the first thing we see is the Big Ten meet at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he set three world records and tied a fourth in the span of forty-five minutes. There is no building to this point, there is hardly even a training montage that prepares us for this character reaching those types of heights so quickly. Instead, we get a few short scenes where Sudeikis (who is rather solid in his first, more dramatic role if not slightly mimicking every “crotchety old coach” performance you’ve seen) as Snyder leans on his inherent dislike for “naturals” due to the fact most believe they don’t have to work as hard as others in order to test Owens to find out what kind of “natural” he is. There is some talk about the start being the most crucial part of a race and Snyder offering insights into how to improve Owens time by improving his starting technique, but hardly anything of substance that would communicate Owens and Snyder forming something of a deeper bond. That bond comes later when Owens lets his modicum of fame get to his head and he cheats on Ruth with something of a groupie. It is here the film finally begins to find something of a groove as we’re privy to a personal crisis that gives insight into the type of man Owens was. It is on this momentum that we are hurdled through to where it’s been decided the U.S. will compete in Berlin and the NAACP approaches Owens asking him not to go to the Olympics. This is clearly the more interesting and layered conflict that would not only show Owens qualities as a person, but provide plenty of context on the time period as well as the turmoil surrounding the games, but given it isn’t introduced until an hour in it all feels too little too late.
Rather than building the protagonists character and then developing the key relationship between athlete and coach that would then be tested by the titular noun within the context of the Olympic games the film goes back and forth between these worlds of a black man struggling to be a black man in 1930’s America while being respected as the fastest man in the world and a bunch of old, white guys sitting in their ivory towers talking about the politics of sport. Were the film to address the conflict Owens felt by pondering the lack of difference between his country and Germany at this point in history and whether him attending the games would make a difference or not the inevitable collision of these two aforementioned worlds might have held more of an impact. As it is though, this internal struggle amplified by Snyder’s opinion that he should obviously attend the games paired with his inability to walk in Owens shoes is relegated to maybe twenty minutes of the film before Owens decides he will in fact attend the Olympics to which we are then delivered several more story points all to be managed in the last forty or so minutes of the film. From Owens not getting along with his Olympic certified coach and requesting Snyder be his instructor to the refusal of Hitler to congratulate Owens after his first gold medal win, as well as the ongoing conflict between filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten ) and Reich Minister of Nazi Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), and the unlikely friendship Owens forms with German long-jumper Carl ‘Luz’ Long (David Kross) it is both exhausting and boring given the movie is trying to do so much that no one thing is particularly effective. Newcomer James plays Owens as a very assured talent that is confident in his skill and knows how to push himself further, but in giving us this impression early it is surprising when that confidence is shaken late in the film under the weight of his Olympics decision. This is the type of film that reduces life changing decisions to the sentiment of “listening to your heart” though and thus we have what is more or less a based on a true story movie where the real complications of these true stories are smoothed over with idioms rather than dug into and explored in order to discover something truly enlightening. Jesse Owens life and legacy deserves more than Race can deliver; no matter how honorable its intentions are.