Wednesday, February 24, 2016
RACE (Stephen Hopkins, 2016)
In RACE Jesse Owens (Stephan James) arrives at Ohio State University in 1933 as an already established track star, but the time necessary to train and compete may interfere with work so he can send money back home to Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton), the mother of his daughter. Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) sees Owens as more than just a star at the collegiate level. He envisions an Olympic champion. Having lost his opportunity to win on the world stage, Snyder is driven to get the most out of Owens’ potential.
Owens and Snyder have their eyes set on the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, but political matters may interfere with their plans. The rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party force the American Olympic Committee to consider boycotting the event rather than giving an implicit endorsement by participating. Construction company executive and AOC member Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) is appointed to visit Germany to observe what is happening there, meet with officials regarding discrimination concerns, and report back.
RACE depicts the best-known events and achievements of Owens’ life at the expense of seeing who did it. For a drama that is ostensibly about the four-time gold medalist, a substantial amount of attention is focused on behind-the-scenes matters in Germany. RACE contains incisive details regarding the politics of athletics, especially the Olympics, yet the number of these instances tend to crowd out the protagonist from his own film. Even when Owens is confronted with a political choice when the NAACP asks him not to go, RACE merely shows his choices at various steps thereafter rather than why he decides what he does.
The sports biography also strangely prioritizes other parts of the story while not seeking to understand Owens. He has a fling with a California beauty, but other than injecting a little conflict into his relationship with Ruth, it’s the sort of thing destined for deleted scenes. In roughly equating Owens with filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), RACE is really reaching to compare their bravery in the face of hatred. Riefenstahl made propaganda films for the Nazis, including TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, and directed OLYMPIA, which captured the athleticism at the Berlin Olympics. How complicit Riefenstahl was with the Nazis is debatable, but RACE draws parallels between Owens performing before hateful crowds and Riefenstahl defiantly filming him that are problematic at best.
James brings quiet determination and awareness to Owens. His initial deference to Snyder, with eyes down, conveys how society expected him to interact with white people. James shows Owens carrying himself as a hero whose actions make a greater impact than any words. Sudeikis struggles to seem sincere as Snyder. It’s almost as if he’s playing the caricature of an old-timey coach in a comedy sketch.
RACE is made with apparent good intentions, but in attempting to take a wider view of Owens at the 1936 Olympics, it’s closer to a false start than a victory.