Review: The Jesse Owens Biopic Is Not The 'Race' Movie We Need
At the 1936 Olympics, Jesse Owens raced past competitors and straight into the history books, enraging Adolf Hitler who hoped the international sporting event would lend credence to racist ideology of Aryan superiority. Snippets of archival footage play in our collective unconscious, signaling patriotism and a sense of shared triumph. The hardscrabble history of this record-breaking runner includes backbreaking work in cotton fields at age six, overcoming an early life-threatening illness, and confronting bigotry with grace, whether he was trying to get a college education, qualify for the Olympics, or enter a fancy hotel that’s toasting his accomplishments. And all of this should make for a rousing and riveting biopic. But all we got was unfocused and overlong Race.
Moments into this bloated biopic, it’s clear director Stephen Hopkins is aiming to make the definitive film on the subject. Characters spew fun facts and exposition with an intensity so earnest it actually drew laughs. A doting grandma recounts all that college-bound Owens (Stephan James) has already overcome as she gently strokes a scar on his chest. Then we meet his downtrodden dad, depressed and an ominous sign of the danger of giving up. Next Owens is off to introduce us to his baby mama, to whom he ardently promises to be true. Racing through the basics of Owens’ personal life, I began to wonder how this movie could clock in at 134 minutes. But then, the script leaps to three other threads, and I realized Hopkins was attempting to make the definitive film about Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics, where Nazi prejudice played into political pressures and the making of Leni Riefenstahl’s historic documentary Olympia. And so Owens’ story gets lost in the midst of these others.
We’re introduced to Owens’ coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis in the “white guy who needs to learn racism is a thing” role), and a laughably exposition-heavy college radio informs us that he better get a great track team together, or else he’ll be out on his ear! James and Sudeikis share a compelling chemistry that begins to brew a buddy narrative where both challenge each other and grow from it. This too, could have been a great route for this story. But Race also loops in plenty of shady white folk.
Next, we’ve got Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage. The smug American millionaire was a prominent member of the American Olympic committee as they debated whether Germany’s rumored terrorizing of Jews is reason enough for America to back out of the Berlin-held games. On a fact-finding mission, this hard-nosed businessman meets the notorious Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) and pivotal (but problematic) filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Game of Thrones’ Carice van Houten). With glorious American hubris, Brundage demands these Nazis play down their racist politics in the press and allow “Jews and Negroes” to compete in the games, or else the U.S. will boycott. It’s a deal with the devil that is interesting, but can’t really be dug into along with everything else. Race’s expansive concept would be better suited to a mini-series. And we’re not done yet.
The final arc introduced is Riefenstahl’s. Her filmmaking genius is rarely debated, but her place in film history is marred because her talents were employed in creating Nazi propaganda. Watching the film, I know I shouldn’t like Riefenstahl. She’s more or less a Nazi, though the movie would have you believe less, having her shoot shocked and saddened looks at a sinister Goebbels as he says predictably vile things. But as a woman who defied gender norms (favoring men’s clothes), took to the emerging film medium, and fought for the footage, access and edits that she felt would make her film not great propaganda, but iconic art, Riefenstahl is presented as pretty damn fascinating. And it certainly helps that van Houten’s dark charisma is in full effect. Yet there’s a major problem when the most captivating character in your Jesse Owens movie is the Nazi who defined his legacy.
James is a dashing and likeable lead. But the script by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse shies away from giving his character much complexity. You get the sense they’re fearful of besmirching a man who means so much to people by actually confronting that he has flaws. Sure, they introduce some less-than-awesome elements, like that Owens stepped out on his fiancée with a fast, fame-hungry, rich girl. But they decline to make clear if the two were more than flirtatious friends, much like they refuse to show Owens actually act out against one of his coaches. Instead, the incident is recounted later with laughs between friends. So, Owens is a good guy, but not one to whom we’re urged to relate. We’re basically kept at arm’s length in that way that in-awe biopics tend to do. (Unbroken, Joy—I’m looking at you!)
The development of his character and politics is short-changed amid all those other threads fighting for screentime. One moment, Owens is keeping his eyes averted so as not to offend any random racist white man. The next, he’s considering throwing his entire dream and livelihood away because an NAACP member visited him talking boycott. His political awakening is so abrupt it’s jarring. The film’s trailers would have you believe Race—with its double-meaning title and historic tale—will speak to current issues like Black Lives Matter and Oscars So White. But its politics feel trapped in the past with the film’s quaint time-capsule feel, punctuated by a congratulatory victory shot composed by Riefenstahl.
In the end, a sobering final sequence and a slew of lazy title cards aren’t enough to land the political themes Race teases. So, instead of a drama that’s powerful and relevant the way 12 Years A Slave, Selma or even Chi-Raq has been, you get a scattershot history lesson that fails to be as inspiring, powerful, or moving as those moments of footage from a decades-old documentary made by a Nazi.