Director Stephen Hopkins propels Race forward with the same caution as a student driver taking the wheel for the first time. Occasionally stepping on the gas and catching up to the true speed Jesse Owens’ story deserves to be told in. Hopkins previous biopic film, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, played similarly to Race in that while it had its very entertaining and engaging moments, nothing about the main subject of the film felt revealed. Hopkins takes it one step further by leaving every character related to Owens’ past as a hollow, underdeveloped husk. Sure, they are present and talk, but you never feel any depth to them or understand their history. This happens most noticeably at the beginning of the film with the father and the mysterious circumstances that led to his unemployment. Not only is their development a massive missed opportunity, but it also greatly hinders the character of Jesse Owens.
Whether we like to admit it or not, our personal history and family help mold us into the people we become. By blatantly leaving this part of Jesse Owen’s upbringing unexplored and glossed over, we are denied the chance to know this historical character. That just leaves us to turn him into the sum of his accomplishments, which is a disservice to such a powerfully influential person that represented more than just his race, but the ideals of an entire nation. This gives other characters, like Jesse’s coach Larry Snyder, a chance to steal the focus of the film. Race‘s double entendre is obvious, but it lives up to one definition more than the other.
During this time, race was a huge issue in America, but a potentially fatal one in Nazi Germany. Aside from great physical adversity, Jesse Owens faced significantly more because of the color of his skin. Discrimination based on race or skin color is still an issue currently in America, and this film does a decent job highlighting how far we’ve come, but also just how much farther we have yet to go. Race could have been racier in its depictions of race relations in America and the persecution of Jews in Germany. Instead, we see brief glimpses of it, never fully being allowed to feel the actual visceral nature of the true events. What we are shown is a common trope in these kinds of biopic films where the benevolent white person (Larry Snyder) takes up half the film’s focus. I’m not saying that Larry’s contributions weren’t insignificant or invaluable, but the usual side effect of this type of storytelling is that it tends to overshadow the accomplishments that are being celebrated and the social relevance the story still bares.
Hopkins uses great temerity in telling the story of Jesse Owens. Much like his previous film The Reaping, he takes the safe route, which is the quickest road to take to a tame film. That’s not the approach this film needed for it to stand out and become truly dynamic. Race required the same level of risk and courage that the real person went through, and not this by the numbers storytelling that’s emotional level sometimes feels shallow and forced. The concentration seems to have been placed on the visual appeal, which was very impressive. The set pieces were expertly reconstructed to fit the time period, and the colosseum where the Olympics took place was gorgeously shot. The film’s color tones and color correction gave the film a great aged feel that would fit the quality of films released at that time period.
Stephan James gives a fearless performance as Jesse Owens. His emotional range and physical endurance were one of the most impressive parts of the film. It was his energy and drive that kept the film running against all the obstacles in its way. Thanks to the great performances by veterans Carice van Houten, Jeremy Irons and William Hurt, Race barely makes it past the finish line. Since Jesse Owens is forced to share 50% (or more) of the screen time with Larry Snyder, the film wouldn’t have succeeded without an equally provocative performance from Jason Sudeikis. His performance was actually one of the most surprising since this would be one of his first films that didn’t have an overt comedic aspect. Sudeikis stretched his dramatic muscles in this role with great success without completely compromising his natural comedic tone. Sudeikis was funny when the situation allowed, but knew when to real it in to deliver an effective dramatic performance.
Race started the relay with a great deal of obstacles, but also a strong performance-based muscle to back it up. With more forceful coaching (directing) and greater preparation and planning (story development), this film could have won the race or at least gone home with the bronze. Instead, Race stumbles across the finish line feeling lucky that it finished the competition at all.
Rating: ★★★★★ (5/10 stars)