The Jesse Owens biopic “Race” (opening in theaters nationwide Feb. 19) ambitiously tries to pack too much into a two-hour long movie. While this is a nice and inspiring sports drama, “Race” is disappointing in the context of the subject matter and its central figure.
In short: This Jesse Owens (Stephan James) biopic covers the sprinter’s days as a collegiate athlete at Ohio State through his historic performance at the 1936 Olympic Games. Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt and Carice van Houten also star. (watch the trailer)
Trying to summarizing “Race” exposes just how muddled and unfocused this docudrama is – it begins seemingly arbitrarily in 1933 … but the movie doesn’t really become interesting until 1935. Then there’s some b-plot involving his long-time girlfriend “back home” – and an out-of-place c-plot focused on the U.S. Olympic Committee waffling about whether to boycott the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. There’s something about innovative filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and her contentious relationship with Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. All the while, “Race” still tries to remain focused on Owens, the entrenched racism of the era and his incredible achievements in track and field. In fairness to the filmmakers, no director/editor could have crafted an undeniably winning film from a script that tries to accomplish so much in just one film.
“Race” is an OK movie that dips its toes into each of the aforementioned topics – but it doesn’t go into any of its component topics to any substantial depth. It’s frustrating to imagine a much better film focused solely on any one of these topics. An entire film could be devoted just to Riefenstahl, the controversial filmmaker whose technique revolutionized film-making — even if her most famous works were Nazi propaganda films. Another separate movie could revolve completely on the divided American sentiment about participating in Hitler’s Olympic Games – a society wary of Germany’s antisemitism while still actively segregating it’s citizens by race.
The very best biopics feature real-life characters in focused narratives fixated on a historic event. “42” is mostly about the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers season. “Good Night, and Good Luck” squarely focused on Edward R. Murrow’s clashes with Senator Joseph McCarthy. They are stories first, with a clear story arch and a beginning, middle and end. “Race” is pretty vague about its story arch and only reluctantly commits to an awkward/forced three-act narrative structure.
Thankfully lead actor Stephan James and Jason Sudeikis (portraying Owens’ track coach) ground the film with a pair of fine performances that establish their mentor-phenom relationship. Practically every other character is a one-dimensional caricature – the racist folk are venomous and broad, while the open-minded are noble and righteous. Every character falls in one bucket or the other – there is no grey area — an oversimplification that makes the film less interesting and complex overall. But at least James and Sudeikis are allowed to let their three-dimensional characters dynamically interact with each other and the world around them.
Final verdict: “Race” is a nice dramatization of the events leading up to 1936 Olympics — but in attempting to address too many topics in one movie, this film is unable to address any one of these topics with much depth or complexity.
“Race” opens in theaters nationwide Feb. 19. This sports-drama biopic is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language.