Jesse Owens biopic ‘Race’ never hits its stride
“Race” is like a runner carrying a load of weights on his back. No matter how swift you are, it’s tough to sprint to the finish line when you’ve got so much extra baggage weighing you down.
It’s not satisfied with simply being a biopic of Jesse Owens, who overcame great obstacles to become an Olympic great and four-time gold medalist. It’s also the story of the 1936 Berlin Summer Games and the controversies that surrounded America’s participation in the events. In addition, it spends an unnecessary amount of screen time on Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi filmmaker whose acclaimed documentary “Olympia” chronicled those pivotal games.
As such, it’s a well-meaning, but convoluted story that treads familiar territory of race, politics and sports heroism. The story it tells is powerful, but it’s not nearly as bold or boundary-breaking as its subject matter.
Stephan James plays Owens, whom we meet running on the streets of Cleveland in 1933. The first member of his family to go to college, he’s heading to the Ohio State University, where he encounters racial prejudice from the football jocks with whom he shares a locker room.
He’s coached by Larry Snyder (“SNL” vet Jason Sudeikis), himself a former runner who demands greatness from Owens. With his wily charm and dancing eyes, Sudeikis is an engaging and welcome presence, and comes across as the only person in the film who’s having any fun.
The rest of the cast plods through the story with the enthusiasm of high schoolers reading text aloud in history class.
William Hurt and a scene-chewing Jeremy Irons play board members of the U.S. Olympic Committee, who clash over whether America should participate in the Berlin games.
In Germany, where the movie’s score makes sure to indicate villainy around every corner, we’re introduced to various unseemly types, including Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), an officer of Hitler who aims to keep an all-Aryan Olympics. There’s also Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), who we see working for the Nazi party and functioning as a Nazi-funded filmmaker (who, consequently, is very loose with the principles of documentary filmmaking).
With everything going on around him, Owens becomes background, and James doesn’t do anything to push him forward. The script, by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, never gets into Owens’ head to find out why he runs or to decode the psychology of his sport. He runs, he wins, we watch.
Owens’ relationship with Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton) is also on the back burner, and an affair with a Hollywood type is glossed over. It’s not all James’ fault, but Owens becomes the least interesting character in his own film.
Director Stephen Hopkins, whose filmography includes “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5” and “Predator 2,” does stage one bravura shot. He gets Owens walking out of the tunnel and into Berlin’s Olympiastadion and sends the camera spinning around his head, taking in the fans, the cheers, the jeers that surround him as he steps to the starting line.
In that moment, “Race” is alive. Otherwise it stumbles, a so-so movie about an extraordinary athlete.
for thematic elements