‘Race’ is a kind movie. A warm movie. A welcoming movie. The cinematic equivalent of a gentle hug that asks everyone to get along. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s perfectly pleasant. The trouble is that this bio-pic about Olympic legend Jesse Owens delves into big issues that could have been presented more powerfully and honestly.
In the end, the filmmakers merely trotted through the usual bio-pic motions and then went out of their way to make sure that everyone who appears on screen is actually a fantastic person that meant well (other than Hitler, naturally). Maybe that’s true, but given that the film (the title of which has a double meaning, in case you didn’t notice) deals overtly with hate and bigotry, the soft touch the filmmakers extend to every character prevents any of the negativity that the characters needed to overcome from getting through to viewers. It’s all triumph with no adversity, and as a result, washes over audiences without making much of an impact.
Stephan James stars as Jesse Owens, a legendary U.S. track and field star who overcame the prejudices of 1930s America to break a number of records in a variety of events all the way to the controversial 1936 Berlin Olympics. His cinematic trials begin when he enters a college that’s still primarily segregated. He chose the program to work with a strong coach named Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) that Owens believed could help him become a champion. Their relationship starts off sour since Snyder is in a perpetual underachiever and uncertain of himself. However, as soon as he see Owens run, Snyder lights up and they kick off a historic round of competitions together on a path to the Olympics.
Unfortunately, those Olympics were held in Berlin, which was under Nazi rule. The U.S. Olympic Committee was uncertain of whether or not to send its athletes out of concern that doing so might show support towards the increasingly insane behavior of the Nazi dictatorship. Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) is sent over the let the Nazis know that the U.S. team won’t put up with any of their racist shenanigans. (Sure, Brundage also had selfish motivations given that he was doing business with the Nazis at the time and didn’t want that compromised, but the movie makes it clear that he was still a good guy and never meant any harm.) Owens is accepted by the Olympic team, but is asked by the NAACP to skip the ceremonies to send a message about tolerance and acceptance. In the end, Owens decides to go anyway and prove that he could overcome anything. Perhaps he’ll even win over some of the German people in the process.
Obviously, it’s a wonderful and inspiring story. Jesse Owens was a remarkable man in addition to being an astounding athlete. He was a role model and a trailblazer in a time of such open racism in America that he was unable to walk through the front door of a post-Olympic celebration in which he was the guest of honor (nor was he congratulated in person by the President, unlike his teammates). The movie acknowledges those disgusting hypocrisies briefly at the end of the tale, but until then is far too concerned with highlighting triumph and fostering fuzzy feelings to dive into the most complicated aspects of the story.
Director Stephen Hopkins (‘Predator 2’, ‘Lost in Space’) shoots everything in a nostalgic haze and ensures that every emotional spike and narrative beat is presented as loudly and obviously as possible. The score tells viewers how to feel at every moment, while the writing and directing hammer home every theme with such blunt force that they’ll likely even reach viewers in neighboring theaters. There’s no sense of subtlety and nuance here. Everything is big, broad and underlined for emphasis.
Admittedly, Stephan James casts a strong presence as Owens. His performance is filled with warmth and inner turmoil. He’s rather good in the only role that has any sort of dramatic arc or shades of gray. Everyone else gets one note to play and little more. Jason Sudeikis shows he can carry a scene without a joke, but doesn’t have much more to do than yell encouragements from the sidelines. Jeremy Irons is so hampered by an American accent that he mostly just scowls. Honestly, it’s hard to believe in any of the supporting characters as people even though the film goes out of its way to make everyone seem like a hero, except for Hitler (who has no lines and is played by someone who looks so unlike the dictator that he may well have been a random crew member shoved into a costume at the last minute) and Joseph Goebbels (who’s played as so purely evil, it’s remarkable that he wasn’t given a moustache to twirl).
To make up for having two less than noble Nazis in prominent roles, the film spends a surprising amount of screen time following Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten from ‘Game of Thrones’) making her famous documentary about the 1936 Olympics and desperately fighting for Owens to be represented. It’s an odd diversion that doesn’t seem to have a purpose beyond making the movie even more inclusive and caring. After all, Riefenstahl’s propagandistic documentary was pretty much exclusively about the German triumph of the Olympics, so it’s a bit disingenuous to suggest that she was secretly Jesse Owens’ biggest supporter. However, that subplot just speaks to the issues with ‘Race’ as a whole. Hopkins and company were so desperate to make a heart-warming crowd-pleaser that they diluted all of the dark elements of the story as much as possible.
‘Race’ plays rather awkwardly. All of the rough edges of a tough story have been sanded away into bubblegum fantasy. The film is supposed to be about the immense adversity that Jesse Owens was able to overcome, but the audience has been spared most of that adversity in favor of syrupy sentiment. That’s supposed to make the viewing experience more pleasant, but feels icky for anyone who knows the history well enough to realize what’s been left out. Still, taken on its own soft-peddling and big-hearted terms, ‘Race’ at least works as a standard issue bio-pic. It’s ultimately a film that will play best in high school history classes and on afternoon cable broadcasts – you know, places where audiences can expect safe and coddled versions of history that make everyone look good and help viewers feel like they’re good people simply for watching a movie. That’s fine. There’s a place for those movies. However, in an odd way, it feels like the legacy of Jesse Owens is somewhat slighted by giving him a film that only tells the brightest chapters of his long, difficult and important story.