Race is a biopic chasing the silver, but content to earn a bronze. The kind of Disney-fied production that gives audiences an underdog to root for and feel good about without offering much insight into its inspirational subject.
But immediately after victoriously returning to the United States with four gold medals, Owens found a less than enlightened reception with the biggest indignity coming with President Roosevelt and the White House not even acknowledging his triumph.
Part of the challenge for Director Stephen Hopkins is deciding on what movie he wants to tell. He devotes equal time to three subplots instead of framing the film around Owens. That’s a misstep as he portrays Owens more as a legend than a fully developed person.
Stephan James (Selma) has the tough task of making Owens interesting beyond simply being a guy who can run fast. He does a solid enough job given what he’s got to work with, but he never gets the showcase moments to truly own the movie like Chadwick Boseman did throughout 42 (Blu-ray+UltraViolet ).
Screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse don’t gloss over the racial ugliness of the time period, but they treat it more like something Owens has to just sit back and endure without fully decrying it in full measure. Owens smiles heading to the back of the bus and his off-campus housing seems more like a willing choice. In reality, the same campus that thrilled to his success on the track wasn’t keen on blacks actually staying on campus. Those are the kinds of hypocritical moments that too often are briefly mentioned and not doing full justice to the indignities that were commonplace at this time. More screen time is given to Owens’ brief liaison while his fiance Ruth (Shanice Banton) cares for their young daughter than his frustration with his plight in such a racist climate.
That’s casually diverted since the Nazi’s message of hate and intolerance is worse(?) than American hate and intolerance. In the Nazi subplot, Jeremy Irons plays Avery Brundage, the controversial businessman who fought against a U.S. boycott of the Olympics. Irons handles Brundage as a mystery, particularly as he travels to Berlin to convince Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) to tone down their fascist actions and rounding up of Jews.
Brundage has an agenda that doesn’t seem as noble as simply giving the athletes the opportunity to compete in the Olympics, but Irons offers enough layers in his performance to give Brundage a depth the other characters lack. Equally intriguing is Carice van Houten (Game of Thrones) as German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who defiantly insists on capturing the Olympics in her vision.
Jason Sudeikis proves a minor revelation as Owens’ Ohio State track coach Larry Snyder. Sudeikis has been a blast in comedies like We’re the Millers and Hall Pass, but with this dynamic performance, he proves just as enjoyable when he’s not playing the comic relief.
Hopkins seems invigorated when the film finally moves to Berlin for the Olympics. He stages the German stadium as a massive, imposing structure. Here, the film has a greater sense of purpose and energy as Owens laps the competition and makes the Olympics a career defining moment. There’s a great moment with Owens unexpectedly bonding with German track star Carl Long (David Kross) and they find they have more in common than Hitler would imagine possible. Still, there’s that nagging sense that Hopkins just scratched the surface on a far more extraordinary tale of a man fighting for his pride even as his own nation wants little to do with him.
Shrapnel and Waterhouse tackle the irony of Owens being asked to defend the honor of a country that treated blacks like second-class citizens and it’s especially damning in a poignant final scene. While Owens, ever the unassuming hero, dutifully accepts his fate the audience is asked to work up the righteous indignation on his behalf. Race is a film that’s easy to appreciate, but the filmmakers’ inability to stay in the lane to tell Jesse Owens’ story keeps it from being a sports classic.