Directed by: Stephen Hopkins
Premise: A biographical story about Jesse Owens, the African American track star who attended the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany.
What Works: For a sports movie, Race has a lot in it that is enjoyably complex and the filmmakers embrace the sophisticated nature of their subject. The first half of the story dramatizes its characters dealing with two critical questions: should the United States boycott the 1936 Olympics given the anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime and should Jesse Owens skip the games in a show of solidarity between the African American community and the repressed people of Europe? These are not easy questions and even though the filmmakers pretty clearly favor one side of each argument they treat the issues with the nuance and sensitivity that they deserve. Actor Stephan James is cast as Jesse Owens and he does well in the role. Race is not a hagiography and the movie portrays Owens as a young man who was not above corruption, who failed at times while succeeding in others, and who had an emotional response to the racism and injustices that he faced. Stephan James is paired with Jason Sudekis as Ohio State track coach Larry Snyder. He’s convincing in the part and Sudekis continues to stretch his range as an actor. One of the most interesting complexities of Race is its portrayal of the German characters. Of particular interest is the subplot involving Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) who was shooting her sports opus Olympia at the 1936 Olympic Games. Goebbels is a force of evil but Riefenstahl is portrayed in a much more nuanced way, as someone who cooperated with evil people to do her work. Also interesting is the portrayal of German Olympian Carl “Luz” Long, played by David Kross. As depicted in the film, Long was openly critical of the Nazi’s racial policies and he befriended Owens on the track. This film’s portrayal of racism and the struggle against it has a lot of subtlety and the filmmakers opt for a bold final scene, one that is unexpected in a sports movie like this.
What Doesn’t: The ironic flaw of Race is that it is a sports movie in which the sports are the least interesting part. Jesse Owens was a short distance runner and a long jumper and the filmmakers don’t stage these events in a way that heightens and prolongs the tension. Quite a few of these events take place in real time or something close to it. As a result, the key scenes of the movie—the moments that define Owens’ legacy—are rushed through and they don’t capture the adrenaline of competition or beauty of athletic prowess. It’s ironic that Race goes to so much effort to include Leni Riefenstahl in its story since Olympia documented these events much more interestingly. Race also skips over sequences of Owens training. It may be that the filmmakers were trying to avoid sports movie clichés but the story suffers without it. Coach Snyder initially makes a big deal of how hard Owens will have to work to get to the Olympics and the investment of time and effort is what gives the competition and the boycott debate their dramatic impact. Eliminating the training sequences diminishes the movie’s stakes. Although they skip the training montages the filmmakers of Race do fall into that other cliché of the sports film: the inspirational pep talk. Moments that are supposed to be rousing sound like they were ripped from an obnoxious Facebook meme. The production values of Race are sketchy. The film takes place in the 1930s and the some of the artificial backgrounds are very obviously computer generated effects. The period clothing often appears too clean with the characters looking like actors wearing costumes instead of people in their everyday clothes.
Bottom Line: Race is an acceptable movie. The film has a lot in it that’s admirable and it actually succeeds more on cerebral levels than it does in delivering visceral sports action. The movie aims to make the audience feel good and it generally does that.
Episode: #584 (February 28, 2016)