Directed by Stephen Hopkins.
Starring Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Shanice Banton, Carice van Houten, Eli Goree, David Kross, Barnaby Metschurat, Jeremy Irons, and William Hurt.
Jesse Owens’ quest to become the greatest track and field athlete in history thrusts him onto the world stage of the 1936 Olympics, where he faces off against Adolf Hitler’s vision of Aryan supremacy.
Track and field, from the get-go, seems like a challenging activity to adapt for a feature-length film that exudes the appropriate excitement and dramatic stakes. Even the tagline for Race states “Jesse Owens changed the world and 10.3 seconds”, which is admittedly quite the attention grabber, but a realistic examination tells you that the most important moments of this film are over in a flash. This isn’t like other sports that take time to play out, leaving the filmmakers with something to accentuate in tension as it goes on, or even one that allows for much cinematography style to be displayed over the blink-and-you-miss-it key races.
So what we’re left with when Jesse Owens isn’t out there on the field practicing or facing heated racial tensions in Germany while on his quest to win multiple Olympic gold medals, is a rather by the numbers docudrama taking us through the American hero’s life, step-by-step, mistake-by-mistake, and achievement-by-achievement. It will be argued in countless reviews that Race comes across as something made-for-TV, and that may very well be true, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some entertainment to be found.
The film is essentially held together from falling apart by a strongly convincing performance from Stephan James portraying the world-record shattering runner. Thankfully, it also rarely goes for the easy route to create sympathy for the protagonist during a very ugly time for civilization and the perception of other races. Race is more interested in exploring the tough predicaments both America and Jesse Owens were put into in regards to supporting Olympic Games in such an intolerant environment.
The earlier stages of the film follow the various members of an Olympic Committee deciding on what it would mean for America as a country to support the games, before eventually voting and coming to a decision, while Jesse Owens is confronted with either bowing out of the games to make a statement for his race, or to go with what his heart wants and in the process, as one character puts it, stick it up Hitler’s ass. The contrasting story arcs mostly work as thought-provoking parallels.
Ultimately however, Race heavily suffers from having far too much crammed into its already beefy 134 minute running time. Somehow, even in a movie this long, major instances such as Jesse Owens injuring himself are initially treated as something of a severe consequence, only to be simply forgotten about moments later. The film is also bogged down by what will end up as some of the most superfluous subplots that will probably be seen in a movie all year, like coach Larry Snyder (played by Jason Sudeikis stepping out of his comedic element to try his hand at period piece drama) hunting down new shoes for Jesse Owens and wondering why they weren’t delivered on time. Riveting stuff.
Speaking of Jason Sudeikis, his foray into more emotional territory is passable; he shines in some moments but falls flat in others. To be fair, the moments where he isn’t very good mostly seem like the script creeping up again as overstuffed, not giving him much room to do anything with the material. Race could have used less scenes about the state of Germany and underhanded blackmailing, to put more of a focus on the relationship between Jesse Owens and Larry Snyder. It’s most definitely there, but sometimes it just gets lost amongst how much other little details the film is trying to checkmark.
The addition of Jesse Owens’ family adds virtually nothing to the plot, mostly serving as a string of clichés scenes to get us in his corner. Theoretically, you can achieve the same effect without actually showing them, and have more time to focus on the points that matter. There are even a quick few moments during the rise of his fame where he regrettably cheats on his girlfriend, but it’s over and done with so fast that none of it resonates on any emotional level, leaving you wondering what the point of even including the section was.
Even so, Race does come full circle for a thrilling final 30 minutes that does successfully find a way to make the quick events stand out; the film likes to play around with numerous fouls to further build suspense, and also has some beautiful shots of Jesse Owens running, always with a quick glimpse of the posture of his feet before taking off. There is also a highly impressive unbroken take as Jesse Owens enters the field of the Olympic Games for the first time, surveying a massive crowd as he gets caught up in the enormous extravaganza.
Race doesn’t necessarily stand out as a great movie, but it hits all the right notes and is serviceable material that honors an American hero respectively. It may be overwritten and a rocky ride with very little visual flair from its director, but drawing attention to Jesse Owens is only a good thing. Besides, you also get to watch Hitler act a sore loser and not shake his hand just because he is black.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★