The greatest American middle finger Germany ever saw. Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis and Academy Award winners Jeremy Irons and William Hurt star Race.
Cast of Characters:
Jesse Owens – Stephan James
Larry Snyder – Jason Sudeikis
Avery Brundage – Jeremy Irons
Ruth Solomon-Owens – Shanice Banton
Leni Riefenstahl – Carice van Houten
Joseph Goebbels – Barnaby Metschurat
Carl “Luz” Long – David Kross
Judge Jeremiah Mahoney – William Hurt
Director – Stephen Hopkins
Screenplay – Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse
Producer – Jean-Charles Levy, Luc Dayan, Louis-Philippe Rochon, Dominique Seguin, Stephen Hopkins, Kate Garwood, Karsten Brunig & Nicolas Manuel
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language
Hoping to provide a brighter future for his girlfriend Ruth (Shanice Banton) and their daughter, gifted athlete Jesse Owens (Stephan James) heads off to Ohio State University. Being that it’s the ’30s, him being accepted into the school doesn’t erase the prejudice he receives from his schoolmates, but track and field coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) sees the great potential within him and offers him a spot on the team. Owens’s high school running and jumping records have already impressed him; after blowing through new records in the broad jump and 100-yard dash, Snyder sets his and Owens’s sights on a greater prize: Winning the gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
It’s an offer Jesse can’t refuse, but it’s one that doesn’t come without its concerns. Whatever prejudice receives here at home will most certainly be doubled in Germany, a country obviously known as the standard-bearer for racial harmony. Of course, that all depends on if the U.S. even enters the Olympics due to Germany’s policies, a debate that is waged between Judge Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), the president of the Amateur Athletic Union, and Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Like 2013’s 42, which centered on Jackie Robinson’s obstacle-busting entrance into the MLB, Race also deals with another barrier breaker, gold medal-winning Olympian Jesse Owens, and like Robinson’s film treatment coming decades after his tenure with the Brooklyn Dodgers, it’s a wonder how we’re just now getting a film on Owens eight decades after he took home the gold four times in the Berlin Olympics.
Most every knows Owens’s story, though I’m surprised as to how many Americans are unfamiliar with it (then again, in today’s social media/reality TV obsessed culture… no, I’m not). Everyone that does know his story knows his journey from poor Alabaman to “Buckeye Bullet” Ohio State champion to Olympic hero, all while withstanding the racial and economic adversity that aimed to hold him back (it’s quite sad that the real snub of Owens came not from Hitler but President Franklin D. Roosevelt, even with all the ticker-tape parades he’d receive in New York City and Cleveland), could be turned into a great, inspiring film if placed in the right filmmaking hands.
Unfortunately, Stephen Hopkins’s hands are not the right filmmaking hands. Owens’s story is simple, yet still emotionally rich enough to stand on its own as a compelling biopic, and call me crazy, considering that this is about – you know – Jesse Owens, you’d think that nothing more needs to be added. Well, that just isn’t good enough for Hopkins. We don’t just get Owens’s story. His coach gets a portion of the plot; his love triangle gets a portion of the plot; the Olympic committee and their dilemma with Nazi Germany gets a portion of the plot; Minister Goebbels gets a portion of the plot; filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl gets a portion of the plot; German athlete “Luz” Long gets a portion of the plot and so on.
There are so many different angles and perspectives, and while a stronger filmmaker might’ve been able to make them all fit, it’s so clear that the director of A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child and Predator 2 doesn’t know how to effectively integrate them without losing focus of who should be front-and-center, Jesse Owens.
It’s as if Oprah hijacked the production, took everything hostage and hollered, “YOU GET A SUBPLOT!! YOU GET A SUBPLOT!! YOU GET A SUBPLOT!! EVERYONNNNEEEE GETS A SUBPLOOOOTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
The lack of focus is an unfortunate problem that distracts from the driving conflicts within Owens’s pursuit of the gold. Should Owens boycott the Olympics and for what reason? Because of the prejudice he receives at home or because many overseas in Germany are treated with twice the amount of prejudice and persecution that he is? Or should Owens say to hell with all that, go to Germany and show Hitler that one of America’s “inferiors” is able to kick his country’s ass in track-and-field (which actually isn’t true, despite the four medals he won, as Germany won more medals that Olympics than any other nation)? These are complex moral dilemmas that the film could’ve explored. Hopkins and writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse do touch on them, but aside from a few effective moments (there’s a strong scene post-Olympics when Owens is forced to use the service entrance like a second-class citizen for a dinner that is honoring him), Hopkins is barely able to scratch the surface in portraying the struggle the real-life Owens undoubtedly faced.
The actors uniformly acquit themselves quite well here, and are Race’s key strength. Stephan James turns in fine work as the four-time gold medalist and effectively captures Owens’s humility. Jason Sudeikis, known for his comedic roles, at times seems a little in over his head during the heavier scenes, but for the most part does a solid job in his first dramatic role. Both Jeremy Irons and William Hurt pop up briefly, and one could reasonably argue if their characters are even needed here (their storyline of the debate over the possible U.S. boycott of the Berlin Olympics feels like a separate movie). Still, needless or not, the two veteran actors add gravitas to the picture.
Overall, does the film do anything egregiously wrong? No, but it also doesn’t do anything particularly special either.
Race undoubtedly comes with nothing but the best intentions in wanting to honor the late, great Olympic hero, but doesn’t give its biopic subject the focus needed to really do the man justice. A slight boost of inspiration is earned by the cast, each giving it their all, especially Stephan James. It’s just too bad the film around James isn’t as good. Now 80 years removed from his iconic triumph in Germany, Jesse Owens remains a legend of American athletics. Race, unfortunately, settles for average.
I give Race a C (★★½ ).