By: Muneeb Arshid
When you think about the title Race, there are a couple different ways that you may interpret its meaning. On one hand, it could be referring to the life of Olympic track and field star Jesse Owens and his race to victory in Berlin. On the other hand, the film is against a backdrop of racial tension not just in America, but more importantly in Nazi Germany during the 1936 Olympics.
At its core, Race is the story of four-time gold medallist at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Jesse Owens (Stephan James). A story that begins with him leaving for college and being recruited by the track and field coach at The Ohio State University, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) to him becoming a national icon while battling racism throughout his journey. His story ultimately culminates with him going to Berlin amidst certain controversy at home and abroad and becoming an international star.
For a film that is very much a nuts and bolts sports biopic, Race is attempting to cover many different topics over its 135-minute runtime. Yes, 2 hours and 15 mins, which felt like an eternity since the film takes it time to develop (or attempt to develop) every single thread of racial tension and Owens’ training and his life back home. A lot of it may not be the filmmakers fault, since they are basing it on a true story and Owens’ story is very complicated, not just in his athletic career, but more importantly, the political and personal aspects of his story. So, for the filmmakers to make an attempt at telling an accurate story, they become shoehorned into adding in the extra material which drags the film and makes it feel a lot longer than it needed to be.
It doesn’t mean that director Stephen Hopkins hasn’t made his best attempt at telling a story about an iconic American athlete, whom sadly many people don’t know much about. The story, however, is a pastiche of many other sports biopics that we’ve all seen before. Jason Sudeikis plays Jesse Owens’ college coach at Ohio State, a character that has become very common in the history of sports biopic films and their like. His role seems to be one that has made Kevin Costner quite famous in years past. A role that requires Sudeikis to be the tough, no-nonsense coach to start and then transition into a more mentorship/friendship relationship once the athlete in question has now athletically peaked. A very generic portrayal by an actor who hasn’t necessarily seen very much critical success even though he’s been quite prominent as an actor.
Stephan James does a wonderful job playing Owens in the first major leading role of his career. The film required him to not only be at maximal athletic performance but also had him acting in different situations, dealing with both personal and political issues during his quest for Olympic gold. Apart from James, the cast also included Jeremy Irons playing an American delegate named Avery Brundage who was critical in assuring that the American Olympic Committee did not boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics at the height of Nazism in Germany. Irons, of course, shows no flaw in portraying his character, exuding the quality that you would anticipate from an actor of his calibre. However, it’s another generic sports biopic character that we’ve seen before where a higher up at a school, or team or the Olympic Committee, in this case, would cause a stir and complicate matters to which the main characters are subject to harm from their actions.
There is, however, a massive problem with the plot of the film and the way it deals with the multiple issues being depicted in the film. Because the title of the film has a double meaning, it has to deal with the racial tensions of the mid-1930s but also with Owens’ career as an Olympic runner. Interlaced with all this happening, is this weird interruption that hones in on Owens’ personal life. The problem is that the film is stuck trying to find a balance in holding together the plot with these multiple plot points. The issues are especially damning with the personal life aspect, which felt very much that it was shoe-horned into the film. It was none too apparent than the final sequence set at the Olympiastadion in Berlin, where for the first two events that Owens competes in, there is absolutely no focus on his family back home and whether or not if they’re even watching/listening to him perform. Once Owens makes it to his third event of the Olympics, then the filmmakers thought: “damn, we forgot the families, let’s add them in here.” Most times, that sort of thing can fly by your head without noticing, but since nothing had captivated me to that point, the addition of the Owens family at that point really felt off and out of place.
Another problem with the film is the actual portrayal of the racial politics of the time. There’s an instance where Owens is competing for Ohio State for the first time, and when he is announced to the audience he is properly booed by everyone. However, once Owens shows the crowd what he could do athletically and what that could possibly mean for the Americans at the Olympics in the future, the crowd is then strictly behind him (in a matter of a few minutes). This sort of inconsistency is also depicted throughout with the crowd being wholly behind Owens considering what the racial atmosphere was like in 1930s US. There might not have been a large majority of people “protesting” Owens at the time, but it would’ve been nice to see that aspect of the racial tensions because there definitely had to be a minority of ‘racists’ who would rather not have seen Owens compete, much less win.
There is one thing that Race does very well and it is the final sequence of the film. It’s a sequence that is very common in sports films and well, is actually quite hard to get wrong. The sequence of races at the Olympic Stadium are very well done in a way that gives you goosebumps and a feeling that you’re immersed in the film itself. At that point, you want Owens to give it to the Nazis and want him to win the gold medals. It’s a similar feeling that people may have had while watching other sports films with a major climatic end like Rocky or Raging Bull and even more recently with Creed.
For a film being released the week after a massive blockbuster (Deadpool), you can understand the non-quality of the films that are coming out. However, if quality is what you fancy this week, then Race is not the movie that will tickle that itch, rather, that would be The Witch (a film we will review in a few days). For those wanting a sports biopic, then it is a perfectly average addition to the genre; a genre which has seen far better days in the past.
Race makes a valiant effort in telling the story of Jesse Owens but ultimately falls back to cliche sports biopic tropes and results in a disappointing grade of C- (5.6/10).