‘Race’ Runs Through Jesse Owens’ Achievements And Leaps Over Deeper Meaning (Movie Review)

race 7There is nothing wrong with celebrating our heroes by recreating their legacy through film. Race is another sports biopic that delivers strong enough performances matching scenes recreating important events in history, with an ending featuring ‘wrap it up’ text over photos of the real people involved. It is simple enough to admire, but falls in the category of biopics that have little to offer other than the facts.



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Stephan James stars as Jesse Owens, the most famous track and field athlete of all time. Race provides some setup establishing who Jesse is, leading up to his amazing accomplishments, which includes setting numerous world records and the controversial decision to compete at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

We meet the important players involved as well. They including Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), International Olympic Committee member Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), German film director Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), and Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat).

That is an eclectic bunch and this 134-minute film certainly does plenty to properly establish the era and issues involving Nazi Germany. In fact, so much of the film seems to be focused on the particulars involving whether or not America would participate in the ‘36 Olympics that we lose er …track of who Owens is.

James does credible work as Owens, with an awkward personality that balances well with the control we see when he’s on the track. However, Race doesn’t do itself too many favors when dealing with Owens’ relationships. By doing that, it means giving us the broad strokes of what was happening with him back at home, while delivering sports action and showing us scenes in Berlin leading up to the Olympics.

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Basically, this film puts in a lot of material and while Race is well-intentioned, it also falters in pushing itself ahead of the curve as far as basic biopics go. We see the things we likely already knew about and maybe gain some new info through dramatized means, but miss out on deeper connections to what was going on.

The film presents its share of bigotry and finds time to show the beginning of the end of the Jews in Germany during this era. Much like the film’s title, subtlety is in short supply, but I do wish it was more than just a surface handling of the issues Owens and others faced. Race doesn’t need to be Selma, as far as connecting its racial themes with the topical issues of today, but surely a 134-minute film could have found better ways deepen the aspects of the story.

Director Stephen Hopkins has assembled a competent enough feature from a technical standpoint. The races and other track and field events are given enough weight and the limited budget does not stop the period elements looking appropriate enough. Recreating the ‘36 Olympics with a minimal amount of funding also led to some creativity from a visual standpoint. An arrival on the track blends the actors with some visual effects that don’t quite outdo Creed, but does add some flare.

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Additionally, along with James, Sudeikis provides good support as Owens’ coach. Seeing a comedic actor turn to drama is nothing new and Suedeikis may not be a revelation, but he has good chemistry with James and makes the standard monologue moments count. You also get Irons doing his best to keep the behind the scenes stuff with Goebbels entertaining; while this film’s very optimistic version of Riefenstahl follows the film’s very earnest path.

It is not my business to tell a film how it should have done things, but watching Race I couldn’t help but be reminded of a film like 42. The Jackie Robinson-focused feature is not perfect and similarly finds itself in traditional biopic territory, but it felt more accomplished. Both films play things safe with the right amount of sincerity, but Race seems like a story that misses an opportunity to have at least some edge.

The performances are fine and we get the basics down, but it would be great to walk away with more. Race celebrates the legacy of a great American athlete, but the material never goes more than skin deep. That can be enough for mild appreciation, but I wish this attempt led to a deeper study.

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