In 1936, Jesse Owens (Stephen James) is an American track star that seems destined for magnificent glory. Under the guidance of his coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), from THE Ohio State University, Owens is smashing track and field records. The culmination of his athleticism occurs at the Berlin Olympics, where Owens earns multiple gold medals and shows Adolph Hitler just how masterful his master race is.
It’s difficult to declare Race a bad movie but it’s so formulaic and by-the-numbers that I walked away thinking that Jesse Owens deserved a much better movie. I kept waiting for the movie to properly communicate the totality of what Owens accomplished, let alone in a time period where the culture at home told him he was an inferior American citizen, and it just never coalesced into a stronger message. We’re talking about a man who bested the best of the world in front of Hitler. This is ready made for cinematic drama, and perhaps that’s the problem with the screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (Frankie & Alice) because it always seems to fall back on the lazy and expected choice. Part of this is the reality that Owens was just that good as a runner; we only see him lose once in the entire movie. This anticlimax makes it difficult to stir up plenty of suspense around the larger and larger stages for the sports triumphs. The knowledge of Owens’ wins may be commonplace but we should still feel the stirrings of good storytelling and payoffs to well-established work, and that’s just not there. I loved watching the deluge of unhappy Nazi reaction shots to Owens’ victories (never enough footage of unhappy Nazis) but that doesn’t count as a satisfying conclusion to Owens’ story.
The character of Owens is somewhat lost in Race. It’s reminiscent of the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 where the character of Robinson was kind of, well, boring. He’s a character who endures the suffering and indignities of others and perseveres, and this is likely why both films turn their stories of African-American tales into buddy pictures with Strong and Supportive White Men. Much of Race is presented as a buddy picture with Owens and Snyder, and both actors have such an amiable chemistry that they sort of treat the entire movie like a laid back adventure. They’re easing on through a segregated America. Too much of the movie is Owens and Snyder just cracking wise and going from scene to scene. James left a stronger impression as John Lewis in last year’s Selma. He’s too often merely stoic without more to work with. Sudeikis (We’re the Millers) is right in his comfort zone with his performance and doesn’t stray far from his range. I credit the film for not ignoring some of the messier parts of Owens’ story, namely his out-of-wedlock young daughter and him cheating on his hometown girl with a fame-seeking starlet. He’s allowed to be seen making mistakes, but the movie doesn’t allow him to live with them (note: not referring to his daughter as a “mistake”). Whenever Owens might be in a horrible predicament from his own internal decision-making, the movie almost callously breezes by without much contemplation. It’s as if every conflict is in service to the Main Conflict – sticking it to Hitler. The pressure to bow out of the Olympics to make a statement about the treatment of black people in America could have been a soul-bearing moment, but we just move along and barely feel the weight of the pressure. Yes, we know that Owens will travel abroad and win golden glory, but make the decision count.
Another aspect that dooms Race to its limited appeal is the mediocrity of its direction and, in particular, how shockingly terrible the movie is edited. Director Stephen Hopkins seems to have been in movie jail ever since 1998’s Lost in Space. He’s only shot one movie between that bomb and Race, which happened to be The Reaping, a 2007 movie I almost liked by its twist ending. He doesn’t exactly bring much to the material to elevate the races or seem that interested in taking advantageous of the suspense opportunities. There’s one great sequence where Owens first enters the Olympic stadium and the camera tracks his movements where you feel the awe. There aren’t enough moments like this that take full advantage of telling Owens’ story in a visual medium. The other technical misstep is that this is one of the worst edited movies I’ve ever watched in a theater. If you generally pay attention to the editing, it’s generally a bad sign since it’s a facet of filmmaking that is best made invisible. There is one sequence where Owens sits in Snyder’s office and the 180-degree rule is broken over ten times… in one scene! The editing will frequently flip is scene orientation, jumping back and around and creating subtle visual compositions that create incongruity in the brain. Part of this blame deserves to be laid with Hopkins, who chose to shoot his film at these uncooperative angles. It was something that bothered me throughout and would rip me out of the movie.
The most perplexing storyline in Race involves the very positive treatment reserved for a controversial filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), best known for her propaganda films declaring the power and righteousness of Hitler’s Third Reich. Huh, why does a movie celebrating American heroes spend do much time positively portraying a Nazi propagandist? She becomes a translator for Goebbels and the American Olympic committee, but she’s also determined to have her vision respected when it comes to her Olympic documentary that is being produced by the Nazis. She doesn’t seem to mind about Owens trouncing the Aryan myth of racial superiority because she just wants to make the best movie and Owens is her storyline. She is portrayed as a sympathetic go-between for the Americans, someone fighting within a corrupt system to maintain her dignity and ownership in an industry that is dominated by men (she’s criticized for wearing “masculine” clothing). I’ll admit a general ignorance to Riefenstahl’s life and career outside of her most famous documentaries, which I should continue to stress are Nazi propaganda films, but this woman was a member of the Nazi party and responsible for some of the most indelible and damaging imagery justifying Hitler’s genocide, and to prop her up as a character worth rooting for and a champion to Owens just felt wrong.
Has there ever been a more self-satisfied yet facile title than Race? The double meaning is a bit too obvious and yet simple enough to be annoying. In a way, the title encapsulates the movie as a whole. It’s well-meaning but far too by-the-numbers and satisfied that it’s doing Important Work honoring an American sports legend when it’s barely giving us much of a reason to care about him as a person and less reason to root for him other than added Nazi discomfort. Owens becomes a boring centerpiece in his own movie, and his relationship with Snyder feels too ill defined, repeatedly approaching buddy comedy. The historical asides are momentarily interesting but don’t add up to much. The movie has some strikingly awful editing and lackluster direction that hobbles the storytelling. It’s a movie that hits all the checklists for sports biopic but won’t veer too far from its predicated formula. There’s a short scene at the very end that hints at what kind of better movie Race might have been. After his worldwide validation at the Berlin Olympics, Owens comes home to America and is forced to use the service entrance for his own honorary dinner. This American hero has to shamefully take the back entrance to be celebrated. It’s a stark wake-up call just how far the country had to go as far as race relations. This national cognitive dissonance, celebration and segregation, would be ripe for a searing human drama with plenty of emotion. That would be a good movie. Race is only an okay movie, and given Owens’ place in history, that’s not good enough.
Nate’s Grade: C+