We’ve all heard of Jesse Owens. Even those who aren’t aware of the specifics of his accomplishments are apt to forever associate him both with track & field and Olympic victory. Yes, we all know why Jesse Owens is famous, but Race aims to show us why he’s important. It doesn’t quite get there, but it’s a valiant effort. I’ll give it the bronze.
Director Stephen Hopkins fails to find a groove in the first act. There’s a lot of sloppy exposition up front, and frankly it’s all cliche biopic stuff. While it’s necessary to touch upon Owens’ familial background, there’s very little energy to drive these early moments forward, and there’s simply no payoff later in the film worthy of such blandly saccharine melodrama. Yet the performance from Stephan James makes it easy enough to watch. His take on Owens is sturdy and real. Perhaps this is why this expository box-ticking is so frustrating – James seems to be performing for a different, superior film.
We follow Owens to Ohio State University where he trains under coach and former Olympic hopeful, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Together, they set their sights on the 1936 summer games in Berlin. Elsewhere, the American Olympic Committee (definitely not the real name, but I forget) is deciding whether or not to allow Americans to compete in a country run by Nazis. In the midst of all of this is a terrifically interesting (and terribly unnecessary) subplot about famed German documentarian, Leni Riefenstahl, and her work filming the games.
The task of balancing these three narratives is unwieldy by nature, a problem that the filmmakers have attempted to fix by watering down each piece. As I said before, Riefenstahl’s story could have been cut entirely … but it also could have been its own movie. Race is happy to leave it undercooked. Same goes for the story regarding the Olympic Committee. I’d have gladly watched a fast-talking drama about the committee’s conflicting ideals (do we boycott the Nazis or beat them at their own game?), especially if it were lead by William Hurt and Jeremy Irons (both excellent here, until Hurt disappears from the film). Owens’ story is easily and appropriately the most compelling, but one wonders if, as deserving of cinematic treatment as it is, is it even really that cinematic? He surely lived an inspiring and valuable life, but perhaps it’s more suited to documentary.
The main conflict for Owens is when he’s presented with opposite, and equally valid ideas on how to be a proper figurehead for African Americans either by participating or not participating in the Olympics. It’s a tough decision for Owens, but Race spends such a small amount of time on it that it doesn’t feel like a struggle.
Once we arrive at the games, Race really takes off. Most (not all) of the track and field action is shot with an eye for excitement and truly captures the exertion of the competitors. Despite the woefully CG establishing shots, the world inside the stadium feels very real. In fact, the moment in which Owens first steps into view of the crowd, drinking in the scope of it all while the Hindenburg passes overhead is utterly breathtaking. It’s a moment of pure cinema that, much like Stephan James’ performance, shines in a sea of mediocrity.
The other standout is the chemistry between Stephan James and Jason Sudeikis. I’m a big fan of Sudeikis’ comedic work, but was admittedly dreading his dip into the dramatic. I’m pleased to report that not only is he passable, he’s exceptional. Be on the lookout for more dramatic fare from Sudeikis, and get ready for Stephan James to be a household name.
Race is a perfectly entertaining biopic which – despite its loftier goals – ends up being movie-by-numbers. It is worthy of your patronage and will hopefully facilitate discussions on identity and integrity, but it doesn’t live up to the promise of its double-meaning title.
There is one thing I’d like to note before wrapping this up. Prior to the film Comcast’s Chief Diversity Officer had a wonderful quote regarding the hot topic of inclusiveness in film. He spoke of the successes of the studio’s recent output, including the Fast & Furious franchise, Get on Up, and Straight Outta Compton. He noted that Compton is the highest grossing African American directed film in history. “Good diversity practices make good business,” he said. Awesome.
Race opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.