Movie review: Race
Complete with slow-motion shots of spent athletes crossing the finish line and sepia-tinted digital recreations of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Stephen Hopkins’s Race lives up to sports-movie expectation as it tells the Jesse Owens story without upsetting white people
Starring: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, William Hurt, Carice van Houten, Jeremy Irons, Eli Goree, Shanice Banton, David Kross
Directed by: Stephen Hopkins
Running time: 134 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
By Katherine Monk
Race. It’s all everyone seems to be talking about these days, so Stephen Hopkins’s rather long ode to sprinter and track star Jesse Owens is actually very well-timed. Owens conquered the 100-meter, 200-meter and 4X100 meter sprints, plus the long jump to win four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympiad. He won races. But it was all about race.
We get it, because there isn’t much to get: it’s a story about good triumphing over evil, about Americans conquering Nazis, and Hitler getting upstaged at his own orchestrated propaganda event.
Race is designed to prompt a swooning sense of inspiration in every faintly sepia-tinted frame, and for the most part it succeeds because it’s hard to argue with truth. Owens was a true American hero if there ever was one: With hard work and dedication he worked his way out of poverty to earn a spot at the Ohio State University and take his place on the U.S. Olympic team.
Hollywood was built on stories like his, which makes you wonder why it’s taken so long to see a full on, big screen Jesse Owens movie. They’ve made TV movies before, and he’s appeared tangentially in other pieces, but until this film put Canadian actor Stephan James and Jason Sudeikis in the same frame as Owens and coach Larry Snyder, Owens’s biggest screen treatment came from Leni Riefenstahl herself.
The infamous Nazi filmmaker credited with creating ‘the hero angle’ and the language of the modern documentary film showcased Owens winning all four gold medals. He became the surprise hero of her two-part documentary Olympia, much to the displeasure of Joseph Goebbels, who was looking to aggrandize the ‘Aryan race,’ and much to the surprise of Owens himself.
Their legends are connected by time and place, which brings an interesting twist to this otherwise traditional biopic that picks up with Owens taking the bus to college, and ends with a tickertape parade.
You can feel the string section and the brass tuning up for the big moments that are destined to come, but just when you’re prepared for the spine-tingling manipulation and the big clarion blow, Hopkins pulls back by finding conflict.
In the first act, we watch Owens and coach Snyder deal with pervasive racism on campus. In the second act, we watch the American Olympic committee debate a boycott and enter into development agreements with the Third Reich. And in the last act, we get to watch Owens run into the history books, his glory affirmed by one of Hitler’s inner circle.
There’s something just a little unsettling about watching a spritely Riefenstahl, sympathetically played with the same spunk as a young Katharine Hepburn by Carice van Houten, stand up with pluck to the Nazi brass.
It’s like some Hogan’s Heroes version of 1936 Berlin, complete a jokester in the form of Saturday Night Live alumnus Jason Sudeikis. Fortunately, Sudeikis plays this role straight up, but even with his collar buttoned and his wiseacre grimace under lock and key, there’s something about his screen presence that tickles.
There’s an invisible wink, a little nudge that acknowledges our 21st century gaze on 20th century events. You can feel it in the dialogue every time someone is forced to use the “N”word, or roped into a larger discussion of America’s role in the emerging world order.
Everyone here wants to handle historical detail without being offensive, while also remaining accurate. It’s not an easy balance to strike, and you can feel it in every contrived moment as the script takes interesting side roads through different characters, only to charge back onto the divided highway of sports cliché when things get blurry.
Stephan James does a great job with the part, but Race isn’t really his movie. Jesse Owens is the hood ornament – the decoration and the icon on top of the dramatic engine – but he doesn’t really transform as the hero.
The real transformation takes place in the eyes of white people everywhere as Owens proves himself the best in the world, whether it’s in the squinty vermin eyes of Goebbels or the racist peepers of his fellow Americans.
It’s not a bad thing, but it’s one of the reasons why Race – despite its noble intentions to celebrate an African-American hero – feels so white. It’s coming from a white frame of reference and speaking to a white audience through white narrative convention – conventions founded and affirmed in part by Riefenstahl and her peers.
Race’s greatest accomplishment is the way it recreates this moment in time, digitally recreating the Berlin stadium in full detail to excavate the rather unexpected roots of Hollywood heroism – to show us how a white German woman and a black American man made history.
THE EX-PRESS, February 24, 2016