The subtitle for Race, the new biopic about Olympic medalist Jesse Owens, should have been, “See What We Did There?”. Like the obvious double meaning of the title, the film itself continually uses easy conventions and sentimental shortcuts. Although Race is well acted and beautifully made once the story heads to the Berlin Olympics, getting to that point is a tedious, bumpy ride.
Race follows the life and career of Owens (Stephan James) between his enrollment at Ohio State and his success at the 1936 Olympics. With the support of his coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), and his love, Ruth (Shanice Banton), Owens continues to break records, put himself through school, and qualify for the Olympic games. Meanwhile, a conflict is brewing between the American Olympic Committee and Berlin. Given the growing power of Nazi ideology and the use of exclusive sporting clubs to keep Jewish athletes from competing in Germany, some members of the committee think that the U.S. should boycott the Berlin games. Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) is sent to Berlin to convince the Germans to meet the committee’s demands and to allow Jews and black people to compete unhindered. Back at home Owens faces pressure from the NAACP, urging him not to compete in order to make a statement about Nazism and racism.
Given the rich historical context and the heroic true story Race has to work with, I thought that the film would compellingly depict the issues of race, privilege, and spectacle that the story raises. It tries to do so, as Jesse and Larry get into conflicts that largely stem from the coach’s inattention to the different demands placed on Jesse as a young father and a black man. The screenplay has such a shortage of nuance, however, that rather than working with the natural complexity of the story, it strings together monologues and inspiring speeches with little character development between them. Up until the Olympics, the film plays like an hour-long trailer for a sports movie. Even the music is heavy-handed and sloppy. In one scene in Berlin, Brundage is meeting with Nazi architect Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) in a fancy sports club with a string quartet playing in the background. Just so we know that the Nazis are up to no good, as the conversation heads toward racial politics, ominous music is layered over the restaurant’s musicians. The result is so clunky and discordant that it sounds like an editing mistake.
Stephan James gives a solid performance throughout the film, but the script is so bad before the Olympics that Jason Sudeikis, however hard he’s trying, appears to be doing a SNL spoof that has been edited in opposite James’ stronger acting. Similarly, Owens’ friends and family are treated so shallowly that they are little more than set dressings. As his wife, Shanice Banton has little to do but look pretty and coo empty, encouraging words.
The quality of the film improves so dramatically once the Olympic games begin that I can only imagine that this section of the film was written first and was the primary goal of the filmmakers and everything else was added on to make Race a feature-length film. Although there are still some storytelling hiccups, in Berlin the issues of race are more subtly portrayed as Owens and teammate Dave Albritton are treated more respectfully than they were at home, but their Jewish teammates are met with antisemitism. As German athlete Luz Long, David Kross gives a wonderful performance opposite James. As Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker who captured the spectacle of the games, Carice van Houten gives a performance that is complicated enough to engage with the controversial work of the character.
Despite the beautiful period sets and costumes and the moving depiction of the Berlin Olympics, Race is dragged down by the rest of the screenplay. At one point Coach Snyder tells Jesse, “You come off the gun into a brick wall. It’s painful to watch.” That’s akin to the first 90 minutes of this movie. The bad beginning hinders the whole run. 3/5 stars
Race was written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse and directed by Stephen Hopkins. It runs 134 minutes and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language.
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