When I was in sixth grade, we were given an assignment to choose and read a biography and then, naturally, write a report on whatever we chose. I ended up reading a biography on Jesse Owens. I don’t really recall how I arrived at that decision (probably a suggestion from my parents), but it left a lasting impression on me. I still remember the powerful emotions elicited when reading about his face-off with Adolf Hitler and was excited to relive them while watching this film.
That didn’t quite happen. Race is a mostly competent film. The cast is strong from top to bottom. Stephan James and Jason Sudeikis, in particular, own their roles and earn their casting. James carries a quiet strength and conviction throughout the entire film and is likeable and endearing from the opening frame. Sudeikis seems like an odd choice for this type of film (and how dare he try to branch out!) but his character possesses a snide sharpness to his demeanor. It’s a perfect fit for Sudeikis that allows him the opportunity for range without being completely out of his wheelhouse. Brilliant casting. The rest of the supporting cast, Jeremy Irons, Shanice Banton, and William Hurt also hold up their end of the bargain (particularly Irons), even if Hurt can’t stop squinting, ever.
The rest of the film is predominantly a mixture of good and mediocre. No aspect of the film fails to any spectacular degree, but it also never truly shines the way I expected it to. In reference to the clever-but-obvious double-meaning of the title, it felt to me as though the film tries to tackle both issues but only scratches the surface of both. The fallout of that approach is that the film becomes largely formulaic, which is a shame.
There’s a danger in frequently adapting true (or mostly true) life stories to film due to the common arc that many of them share. Now, what happens happens, and I understand that. And every story has the right to be told, regardless of any similarities to previously-told stories (and how crazy were the similarities between Walk the Line and Ray?!). But it pains me when I see a story that has some truly unique components that are treated as common. That was this movie.
Director Stephen Hopkins tries to balance the film as both a biopic and an inspirational drama. As a result, the film feels unfocused, at times. For example, there’s a brief subplot involving some drama between Owens and his girlfriend that serves no purpose towards furthering the main story. It has absolutely nothing to do with either meaning of the word “race” and only serves to slow the narrative down with an unnecessary distraction.
Even worse, there are several instances where events that should be huge, moving moments of triumph instead feel completely rushed and anti-climactic. The moment Owens has supposedly been training his whole life for arrives, comes, and goes in about 90 seconds with a short, moderately-enthusiastic celebration. No euphoria. No fanfare. This might have well have been the end of a Little League baseball game. And then, even though his entire goal in participating in the Olympics is to stick it to Hitler, he’s inexplicably insulted and saddened when Hitler doesn’t want to meet him after Owens does that very thing. That’s a win! Doesn’t he want Hitler to be upset? Isn’t Hitler’s childish reaction an unabashed validation of all of his hard work and desire? Look, I wasn’t there, that day. Maybe that’s how it actually happened. But it just doesn’t ring true to me, in any form. (Edit: After looking into it, I have discovered that this was not how it happened. This explains how it truly happened. So, this was just an example of shoddy, irresponsible filmmaking on every level and has significantly lowered my opinion of the film.)
I believe Race would have been better served by highlighting Owens’s time at the Olympics in Germany. Give his basic background story, establish the primary characters and their motivations, then get the audience to Germany within 45 minutes. There was enough going on over there to sustain the film for the remainder of its running time. And that event is what makes this story different from any other biopic ever filmed. Build the tension, focus on the antagonism, and establish Owens as a figurehead, not for America, not for black people, but for anyone who has ever been oppressed throughout human history. Because this movie – this story – isn’t about being black. It’s about racism and discrimination in all of its forms and how each of us can find ways to fight it in our own, personal way. I understand that, until his time in Germany, Owens’s only frame of reference for this issue was from the perspective of a black man. But his realization that this type of treatment is extended to so many other types of people of various origins is yet another moment that is glossed over in about two minutes of dialogue. The wrong elements were hastened in order to make time for irrelevant story points. To that point, Jesse Owens finds himself in the position to fight the aforementioned racism and bigotry and it happens to be at the highest possible profile against the largest possible demon of the cause. Every blow that is struck by Owens should feel like a massive triumph. The first blow, in particular, should carry immense weight. Instead, I thought, “Oh, this is it? . . . Oh, wait, it’s over? And now it’s the next scene? Well, then.”
Race just struck me largely as a missed opportunity. I should have been moved to tears – or at least come pretty close – several times, but I never even came close. I was still invested in Owens’s journey, primarily due to James and Sudeikis, but I never felt compelled to jump out of my seat in celebration. I was more invested in last year’s journey of the fictional Adonis Creed than I was in the very real and significant journey of Jesse Owens. That’s extremely unfortunate.
I didn’t dislike Race. I’m not suggesting anyone avoid it. It was simply a pretty good movie that could – and should – have been great.