‘Race’ feels far more contemporary than it should

Biopics have long been a Hollywood staple, but it seems like audiences have been bombarded with them the last couple of years.  Sometimes this has been a great thing (The Wolf of Wall Street, Straight Outta Compton), a mediocre thing (Lincoln) and a forgettable thing that damn near tarnishes the legacy upon which the material is based (My All-American).  Hollywood is notorious for keying in on successful narrative formulas then proceeding to run them into the ground accordingly.  

However, it’s far from the only industry that does that.  After all, how many sports stories did we hear this past NFL season about Cam Newton’s on-field celebrations or his team’s unapologetic “blackness” en route to their best regular season record in the league (a point which was often secondary, if not entirely overlooked, in these stories)?  Newton, an athlete who overcame several bouts with adversity to become one of his sport’s elite, was simultaneously loved and hated by fans for his actions, on and off the field, at a time when a tense racial climate was reaching a boiling point throughout our nation.  Ironically, this is the reality Olympian Jesse Owens faced eight decades ago (obviously within the context of the pre-Civil Rights Movement and minus the multimillion dollar paychecks).  My biggest takeaway from Stephen Hopkins’ Race is that Owens didn’t just serve as the mold for all the great Olympians who followed him, but for the modern superstar athlete as well.     

race - jessie and wife

Image: Focus Features

The story begins in 1933 as James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens heads off to Ohio State, leaving behind his childhood sweetheart, Ruth (Shanice Banton), and their young daughter with hopes of being able to get an education and provide a better life for them.  Once there, he meets hard-boiled track and field coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), who promises to get him to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin if Owens can commit to Snyder’s rigorous training regimen.  The first part of the film focuses on Jesse’s difficult adjustment to college life – dealing with blatant racism (especially from the Buckeyes’ football team, which is not given a flattering portrayal at all), juggling a school/job situation and occasionally butting heads with Snyder.  The second act mostly deals with Jesse’s rise to athletic superstardom, which is accompanied by rewards – as well as distractions – that create potentially devastating fallout in his personal life and career.  The last part of the film sets the stage for Jesse’s quest to the 1936 Olympics as he confronts issues about his identity, and considers the impact his presence can make against the Third Reich’s global messages, which advocates hatred and an exclusionary agenda for Jews and blacks.   

The worst mistake a biographical movie can commit is making its subject to be some walking-on-water saint, and this tends to happen a lot in sports biopics.  The most compelling thing about Race is in its unabashed, warts-and-all, grounded approach in bringing to life such a revered figure as Owens.  Stephan James portrays him as a confident, occasionally brash young man, and this is exactly why we like him and feel like he’s relatable.  Every star athlete I was ever vaguely acquainted with in my life – whether it was high school, a local basketball court or in my dodgeball league – has always had an air of cockiness surrounding them, so it makes perfect sense the “fastest man in the world” would have those similar flashes of arrogance.  It’s the essence of why athletes have such ambivalent relationships with the public – we love them when they’re on our side and we love to hate them when they’re killing us.    

Moreover, it was also very interesting to see the parallels between Owens and the modern athlete.  During the film’s 134-minute runtime, we see Jesse deal with the pressures of being a student athlete with a child, get a glimpse of Ohio State giving him preferential treatment in the form of a job he doesn’t have to show up for, deal with baby mama drama, paparazzi, press conferences, juggle a sideline chick, face scrutiny from the NAACP, butt heads with the establishment, and still find ways to push himself for a chance to compete against the world’s best.  If this sounds like an all-too-familiar snapshot for the contemporary superstar athlete, I’ll remind you that this story takes place 80 years ago.  While Muhammad Ali gets much of the credit for the mold that bred guys like Terrell Owens or Floyd Mayweather, Jesse Owens was on the scene nearly three decades before Ali and – sadly – the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Consequently, he was never able to prosper from the lavish fortunes and endorsement deals bestowed upon elite modern sports stars of today let alone enjoy the same everyday freedoms.   

Image: Focus Features

Image: Focus Features

The film’s biggest misfire is a largely uninspired subplot revolving around the U.S. Olympic Committee and their near boycott of the 1936 Summer Olympics, which was avoided because of behind-the-scenes political maneuvering from Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons).  Although Irons is great, the whole subplot is just inessential, feels a bit shoehorned in and lacks any real additional punch to the overall story.  It is regrettable, because all the time spent with this convoluted storyline could have been better spent with Jesse and Coach Snyder, the two characters we care most about.  Not to mention Barnaby Metschurat – a German actor in his first American film – plays Hitler’s henchman, the Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, like a Bond villain…as if it was were a production of “Bond on Ice.”  It’s hilarious…but it’s not supposed to be.      

The main performance I was apprehensive about coming into this was Jason Sudeikis, in a rare dramatic role.  He’s mainly done comedy up to this point, but it’s no surprise he turns in a fine portrayal of Snyder.  As cinematic history has shown us countless times, comedians seem to transition to drama almost effortlessly.  While I don’t foresee him taking on Oscar bait roles just yet, it’s nice to know he has real acting chops in his arsenal and there’s no need to further question his casting the next time he pops up in something serious.  

Overall, Race is an enjoyable film that casts a spotlight on a historic figure who didn’t necessarily receive it when he should have.  The film’s ending is great and poignant, but also carries a tinge of sadness.  Although significant progression has occurred since Owens left Berlin, the film still feels sadly far too relatable and relevant as ever 80 years later.