Race (opening today) is the biopic of legendary Olympian Jesse Owens, and it’s one of the most strangely-constructed sports movie you might ever see.
Stephen Hopkins plays Owens, whose name we learn actually wasn’t “Jesse” but rather “J.C.” which stood for James Cleveland. He is of course one of the most acclaimed, infamous athletes of all-time, who at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, won four gold metals (100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 4 x 100 meter relay), while Adolf Hitler watched from the stands. Not sure if you’ve heard of that dude, but if you have, you can only imagine what Owens did to Hitler’s mythos about Aryan supremacy.
Like most every other biographical movie, it starts early on before Jesse gained fame. Jesse migrated towards track and field when he was admitted to Ohio State University. There was of course heavy doses of racism that he dealt with on a daily basis, and we learn that many black men went into track because they had not yet been allowed to play football. Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis, playing it straight) was a former runner himself who narrowly missed Olympic glory for himself, who was now the Head Coach at Ohio State. Seeing Owens’ raw talent, he befriends him and becomes his mentor.
What is strange about this story is how easily success comes to Owens. He may have been God’s gift to athleticism, but his breezy awesomeness is something we’re not accustomed in sport movies, where we are used to rooting for the under-dog, or watching someone push themselves over the limit…stories of hard-work and perseverance being the only path to victory. There are no Rocky Balboa training montages here. Owens simply laces up his shoes and then goes out and blows away his competition. Off the field too, he has no problem attracting the ladies, and seemingly has all he wants and needs back home with his young daughter and eventual wife, Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton). Where is the conflict or the glory in watching a guy who is at the top of his sport from the very beginning?
Seeming to know that this may be a problem, Race tries to create struggle outside of the track. Jeremy Irons plays Avery Brundage, a man involved in America’s Olympic committee and who is responsible for fielding the 1936 team (for reasons completely unknown to me, William Hurt is also in this movie). On the brink of WWII, we learn that there was a lot of politics going on that almost resulted in America pulling out of the 1936 Games altogether. This is all interesting on the surface, but doesn’t play out well as cinema, especially when Irons reads his lines as if he was still playing Scar in The Lion King.
Race is structured like most every other sports film we’ve seen, with the begrudging relationship between coach and athlete gradually turning into true friendship, and where everything seems to be building towards one massive, climactic winner-takes-all conflict. But while everything feels familiar with the framework, Race is hollow inside. He dominates the Olympics and never really faces adversity within his sport. And wait, he becomes best friends with his German rival? That’s not what happened in Rocky IV.
There is no question that Owens was an important figure inside and outside of the Olympic Games, and that he must have battled diversity to obtain four Gold Medals (and how he broke three World Records and tied a fourth, all within a 45 minute span, while at a meet in Ann Arbor, MI). But unfortunately this movie is too washed and tidy to really portray any of this. I’m sorry, but a PG-13 rating (which this film carries) does not provide the proper environment for a story of this nature to be told. The real conflict of Owens story was in the stuff dealing with Nazi/American relationships, and the racism that existed within our own country, let alone abroad. Not being able to ramp up these parts of the story, I believe, was a major miscalculation on the part of the filmmakers.
Speaking of filmmakers, there is also a wasted sub-plot dealing with German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), who was there making a film for the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics and who is responsible for the great footage that exists of Jesse Owens’ triumphs. This story-line and how it is handled is further proof of how Race was severely watered-down. I’d say it was plain vanilla, but even vanilla has flavor.
Jesse Owens deserves an impactful, powerful, meaningful and memorable film. Unfortunately, Race isn’t it.
Genre: Biography, Drama, Sport
Run Time: 2 hours, 14 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Eli Goree, Shanice Banton, Carice van Houten, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt, David Kross, Jonathan Higgins
Written by Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse
Directed by Stephen Hopkins (Under Suspicion, Lost in Space, Blown Away, Judgement Night, Predator 2, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child)
Opens locally on Friday, Feb 19, 2016 (check for show times).