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You’d be forgiven for rolling your eyes the first time you hear the title of the film. Of course, it’s a double entendre – Race: a movie not only about an Olympic runner, but one whose skin color meant something to the entire world. There’s another level to the film’s title though; it’s not just a noun, but also a verb. Race commands that its central character Jesse Owens does what God made him to do: run, compete, and win. That’s where Race shines brightest – when it goes against the grain and presents the ideas of skin color, politics, or any other ideology as inconsequential compared to the beauty of competition.
Following the story of legendary Olympian Jesse Owens (Stephen James), Race chronicles the track and field star during his time at Ohio State University under the tutelage of coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) as they train for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. While Owens’ collegiate career progresses, the film simultaneously recounts the international tension associated with America’s potential participation in the games under a Nazi regime, and what the message such participation would send to the U.S.A’s own marginalized cultures. Torn between those who want to see him win, and those who want to see him protest all forms of tyranny, Owens eventually finds solace in shutting everything out and reveling in the purity of sport.
As compelling as Jesse Owens’ story becomes as the movie moves forward, there’s an unshakeable sense that the film wants to tell two different narratives. Considering the fact that the film has two credited screenwriters, I suppose this makes sense. One half of the movie feels like a compelling biopic depicting an intriguing character study about an iconic African-American figure. The other half of the film endeavors to present Owens as the audience’s window into a major moment in history.
Overall, the film manages to strike a decent balance between these two narratives, but certain characters and plot points often feel rushed or pushed to the background in service of the greater story. Whenever Race takes time to shift away from Owens and Snyder to directly focus on the politics of American involvement in the 1936 Olympics, or the sinister intentions of Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), the film simply loses momentum.
Credit where credit is due, though: Race pulls no punches about what the Nazis were up to during this era in history, but often feels a little too on the nose. The most haunting moments come when we, as an audience, don’t have a direct view of the Nazi leadership, but when we get an indirect view of what the Gestapo are secretly doing the Berlin’s Jewish population. It’s effective visual storytelling that lends a sense that completely ignoring the Nazi leadership subplot would not only have improved the film, but allowed director Stephen Hopkins to shave 15-20 minutes off of the movie’s run time.
Right off the bat, though, you’ll notice that Race looks absolutely beautiful. The cinematography captures a perfect balance between a colorful nostalgia and stark oppression; however, certain stylistic choices often hold the film back. With an overreliance on subtitles, the film spoon feed unnecessary details such as date, time of day, and even translation of German signs – all of which the filmmakers could have conveyed visually. It’s a distracting creative decision that detracts from the immersion created by the strong performances and set design.
Also, as a generally less dynamic sport, a way in which to portray competitive running in an exciting manner continues to elude Hollywood. The film doesn’t seem to trust that sprinting is inherently interesting to audiences, and often spends too much time cutting away to members of the audience for reactions, which reduces dramatic tension.
Race deserves credit for the way in which it portrays its hero; he’s a good guy, but not infallible. Jesse Owens makes doesn’t walk on water; he makes mistakes, and often doesn’t wasn’t want people to lecture him when he does. Jason Sudeikis also deserves recognition for his portrayal of Larry Snyder. We’ve seen the coach/mentor/sage role done a million times before, but the Saturday Night Live alum injects a certain youthful yet tragic charm to his performance that makes him endearing by the time the credits roll. His portrayal of Snyder feels more like a big brother than a father figure, and it helps the strong dynamic between him and actor Stephen James stand out among the highly technical historical details.
An inspiring – even if sometimes uneven – film, Race addresses topical ideas of racial bigotry by treating them as irrelevant in the grander scheme of things. Using iconic Olympian Jesse Owens its medium, the film implores all members of the audience to tune out the hatred in their lives and channel their energy into something positive. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a story that will resonate with today’s audience as much as it did with those in attendance of the 1936 Olympics.