In the 1930s, Jesse Owens is a young man who is the first in his family to go to college. Going to Ohio State to train under its track and field coach, Larry Snyder, the young African American athlete quickly impresses with his tremendous potential that suggests Olympic material. However, as Owens struggles both with the obligations of his life and the virulent racism against him, the question of whether America would compete at all at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany is being debated vigorously. When the American envoy finds a compromise persuasive with the Third Reich to avert a boycott, Owens has his own moral struggle about going. Upon resolving that issue, Owens and his coach travel to Berlin to participate in a competition that would mark Owens as the greatest of America's Olympians even as the German film director, Leni Riefenstahl, locks horns with her country's Propaganda Minister, Josef Goebbels, to film the politically embarrassing fact for posterity.Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (email@example.com)
"Race" makes good use of its title's dual meaning, but it could have gone deeper into both issues.
It's easy to get distracted by well, life – even when you're doing something important (maybe, ESPECIALLY when you're doing something important). If you have a faithful "significant other" who is not around at the moment, you may be tempted to stray from "Miss Right" in favor of "Miss Right Now" (or "Mr. " whichever the case may be). If you're determined to accomplish something big, you may be confronted with people who believe you will fail (and even want you to fail) – and openly express those feelings, whether out of pettiness, jealousy or even the color of your skin. If you're succeeding at something that draws a lot of attention, others will want to use you or your accomplishments to further their own personal, financial or political goals. These are just some of the distractions competing for the main character's attention in "Race" (PG-13, 2:14). Of course, I think we'd all agree that, in the end, what defines each of us is how we deal with our distractions. Jesse Owens learned that lesson well.
Stephan James plays the legendary runner from the ages of 20 to 23, the years that turned him from virtually unknown high school track star in Cleveland, Ohio to the man who defied Adolph Hitler's myth of "Aryan" racial superiority at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Jesse (actually, "J.C.", notwithstanding his elementary school teacher's misunderstanding his name) is in a long-term relationship with Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton), with whom he has a little girl, but he has to say goodbye to both of them (and his large family) to begin his higher education and college track and field career at The Ohio State University in Columbus. It is there that he meets track coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), the man tasked with turning Owens' raw talent into even greater accomplishments.
Owens first struggles with, then learns to overcome the distractions of sexual temptation, racial prejudice and the competing interests of some pretty important people who are determined to make Owens a pawn in their games of politics and perception. Early on we see Owens' incredible performance at a 1935 Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he put together what many people consider the most impressive 45 minutes in sports history. While at a meet in L.A., Owens' growing fame attracts the attention of the sexy, glamorous and wealthy Quincella, otherwise known as major distraction no. 1. Throughout his life, and even as a famous athlete, Owens has to endure the indignities of being forced to use "colored" entrances to buildings, being literally pushed aside by his white teammates and having racial epithets screamed at him while he's competing. (This is major distraction no. 2, but it also shows the illogic and hypocrisy of racism as his successes lead those who treat him horribly to cheer, embrace – and use him.) This brings us to major distraction no. 3 – the politics which swirled around Jesse Owens.
As Owens works hard to become a better runner – and a better man – the pattern of ethnic and racial discrimination in the Olympics' designated host country overshadows (and even threatens to derail) Owens' growing list of successes and his potential future accomplishments. The U.S. Olympic Committee (with Oscar winners Jeremy Irons and William Hurt representing conflicting positions) debate whether it's more important for the U.S. to boycott the Berlin games to make a statement about Germany's human rights abuses or for the American athletes (including the black and Jewish ones) to have the hard-won opportunity to compete – and maybe even to beat the Nazis at their own games. Eventually, the debate literally arrives at Owens' doorstep as a representative of the relatively new NAACP puts significant pressure on Owens to refuse to attend the games as a way of striking a blow against discrimination. Owens now has the same debate within himself as the U.S. Olympic Committee had on behalf of all the athletes. It's no great mystery which decisions are made, but it's still interesting to see these stories play out on the national and international levels – and on a very, very personal level.
"Race" is solid entertainment and very inspirational, but not as impactful as it could have been. James makes Owens' struggle suitably personal, but his portrayal lacks the emotional depth that would have really driven the movie's messages home. SNL's Sudeikis is effective at playing it straight, but is a little shallow as Owens' coach-mentor-friend. The screenplay, by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, does a great job at balancing Owens' story with the surrounding historical drama and spares us the full ugliness of the Nazis' treatment of their own people and Americans' treatment of Owens, but fails to go far enough into the story's most important issues. Stephen Hopkins' direction is even-handed, but antiseptic. "Race" is appropriate for families, but should have explored the parallels between the racial issues of the 1930s and those of the 2010s. While we do see a reflection of the ongoing argument over whether it's more important to take a stand than to overcome adversity through accomplishment, the theme isn't sufficiently played out. Overall, the film effectively tells the dual stories implied by its title, while it educates and inspires, and it has its thrilling moments, but it runs past issues that would have been better served by a deep dive (if you'll excuse the mixed sports metaphor). "B+"
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