Director: Stephen Hopkins
Cast: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Eli Goree, Shanice Banton, Carice van Houten, Jeremy Irons, David Kross, William Hurt
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements and language)
Running Time: 2:14
Release Date: 2/19/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 18, 2016
There are times when a person's individual achievement transcends the level of the individual. In the grand scheme of human history and every human being that has participated in that history, those times are rare, but it's probably safe at least to consider Jesse Owens' multiple victories at the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin to be included within that category. It was more than a personal victory. Whether Owens saw it that way or not, it was an act of defiance against the hateful, systematic racial prejudice of the government of a country that would, just three years later, begin a war that engulfed the entire world.
Owens' story is vital, and there are moments in Race, a biographical telling of the years leading up to his Olympic Games appearance and the games themselves, when the movie addresses exactly why this story is as important as it is. It's not just about Owens. It's about something greater than one man's triumph. We know this. The screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse clearly recognizes it, too, or else there wouldn't be the scenes here that show or tell what was happening in and to Germany in the buildup to and during those games. Is it enough, though?
In a way, that's the question the movie is asking, although, obviously, it has nothing to do with questioning the movie's own balance of biography and contextualizing that biography within the bigger picture of institutional prejudices. No, the question, ultimately, is whether or not Owens' victory was really enough. War still erupted. The Nazis still went forward their plans. Owens returned home to face prejudices that were—as the movie's Owens puts it, "deep down"—the same thing. The movie's coda offers a sliver hope in the form of a boy who would be part of the generation that would fight against it (The movie ignores the fights of the generations after that, not to mention, sadly, the ones that will likely be fought by the generations after ours). Still, the movie questions, "Was it enough?"
It's an answer the movie really doesn't want to address, and that might be why its historical context winds up feeling so slim and basic. Prejudice, racism, and anti-Semitism exist here. The movie shows them and has characters talk about them, but it turns out simply to be the backdrop against which Owens fulfills his destiny to prove himself, against multiple odds, to be "the fastest man in the world."
That story is still inspiring, even within the context of a watered-down presentation of the challenges he faced and the poisonous ideology against which he struck a blow. In 1933, Jesse (Stephan James) is the first of his family to go to college. There, he's enlisted to the track and field team by its embattled coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). At home, Jesse has a girlfriend named Ruth (Shanice Banton), who is also the mother of his daughter.
Meanwhile, the American Olympic Association is debating whether or not to participate in the upcoming games in Berlin. Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) argues that it would be a sign of accepting the Nazis racial policies, and Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) contends that the organization should not deny this opportunity to American athletes. Avery goes to Berlin as an ambassador, meeting and negotiating with Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) to convince him to do a better job hiding the government's despicable policies for the good of the games.
The usual scenes follow. Jesse improves his running skills during montages. He faces overt racism from students and others, learning to shut it out by way of his coach's advice. He participates in meets, wins, and breaks records, as crowds who were shouting racial epithets at him start to cheer for his success (speaking of oversimplifying matters of prejudice). Jesse's relationship with Ruth hits a roadblock on account of a very public affair, but it all works out in the end. He faces a crisis of conscience when a representative from the NAACP recommends that Jesse boycott the games to make a statement against the German government's policies.
In Berlin, there is a major shift, as the overpowering nature of that authoritarian state becomes clearer and clearer. There is no denying the visceral impact of seeing Jesse walk on to the field of the massive stadium, take in the sight of 100,000 people cheering, and witness the majority of those people turn, salute, and chant as the country's leader walks to his seat (Director Stephen Hopkins shows it all in a one-take).
The story's stakes increase in an instant. Jesse's story suddenly becomes what we know it to be. It's a powerful moment, and the rest of the movie tries to keep up with it, as Larry sees people being loaded on trucks against their will and Carl Long (David Kross), Jesse's major competition in the broad jump, explains how his country has turned to a form national insanity. The American team's only Jewish athletes are put aside as a way to "commend" their hosts' hospitality.
Race very nearly does maintain that awareness of the bigger picture, but it still sets out to work, first and foremost, as a biography. That's fine, but one can't help but feel that the movie downplays the far more important ideas and ideals here.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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