The overall disappointment in Race comes from the fact that this unconventional biopic about Cleveland’s legendary track star, Jesse Owens, feels rather conventional. The film opens Friday (Feb. 19).
It’s just a simple retelling that’s not as emotionally gripping as it should be give its subject matter. What screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse have created is a film that concentrates less on Owens’ personal battles and more on his professional achievements.
Given the fact that he was African American, they would seem to be one and the same, no? Not necessarily. In Race they separate the two to the point where the audience may believe they are watching two stories.
There’s Owens the NCAA and Olympic track legend who breezes through competitions setting collegiate and world records.
Then there’s Owens the black man who, even in the North, in the early 1930s cannot enjoy any semblance of equality. While that is dealt with in some cursory instances, it’s not done so enough to add the emotional heft that would have helped this film connect with its audience better.
It is far too subtle in dealing with and contrasting the relationship Owens dealt with in Nazi Germany and here in America.
By the time Owens arrived in Germany, after creating a name for himself, he’d already stared down pressure from the NAACP to boycott the Olympics because of what Hitler stood for.
What he found in competitors such as Carl “Luz” Long and the German people in general was a far more welcoming attitude despite the overt racism and xenophobia that the country’s leaders espoused and practiced with respect to Hitler’s reprehensible final solution for Europe’s Jewish people and overt belief in Aryan superiority.
That contrast gets more screen time than any showing the inherent contradictions of Owens being treated as less than human and still representing his country.
The screenwriters and director Stephen Hopkins (Lost in Space) do make amends by fleshing out the relationship between Owens(Canadian Stephan James) and his Ohio State track coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), at times making it the most compelling aspect of the film. In fact, most of the best moments in the movie come when those James and the former Saturday Night Live alum are on screen man to man.
James plays Owens as the naive college student he is to start at Ohio State. For those who navigated that first year, it’s fraught with peril. However, he does a credible of job of taking from that place to the one where Owens, as a man, needs to go. Strong. Independent and assertive as he can possibly be.
Sudeikis brings his sense of humor along with a nice dramatic touch to the proceedings to help James complete what is arguably the most important and most enjoyable aspect of the film.
But as written and presented, it turns out the Berlin games weren’t necessarily the most difficult challenge in Owens’ life. That came when he returned to America and the audience never saw it presented in any great detail.
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Cast: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons
Studio: Focus Features
Rating: 3-of-5 stars
Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements and language.
Running time: 108 minutes
Check for theaters and showtimes at Atlas Cinemas, Cleveland Cinemas, Fandango.com and MovieTickets.com