Race (2016)

Those Nazis didn’t even know how to enjoy the Olympics!

Jesse Owens (Stephan James) was just a young man living on the dirty streets of Ohio. He had a kid, he had a girlfriend, and he had a very poor family, but what made him rise above all of that was the fact that he not only was a very fast-runner, but had all sorts of ambitions and ideas for what he wanted to do with his life. That’s why when he got accepted on a full-time athletic scholarship to Ohio State, he couldn’t pass it up and had to grab the opportunity right away. Problem was, considering that this was the mid-30’s, people didn’t take too kindly to African American people, regardless of how fast they could run, or how high they could jump. Getting past all of these issues, however, was Jesse’s track and field coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), who wants Jesse’s absolute and undivided attention to the team, so that they can win all sorts of championships and, if lucky, head on off to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. And everybody knows what was going on with Germany at that time, and it’s another problem that gets thrown in the way of Jesse, as well as the whole U.S. Olympics team.

Black and white can get along people!
Black and white can get along, guys!

There’s already something interesting, and relatively cinematic about Jesse Owens’ own story that it doesn’t need much else more to be said around it. However, Stephen Hopkins, for some reason, didn’t seem to realize this. Instead of keeping the story singularly placed on Owens, his triumph over racism, adversity, and personal anguish, to, at the end, stick it to Hitler in the best way he could, Hopkins goes everywhere else.

Not only does we get Jesse’s story, but we also get a story about his track coach; not only do we get a story about his track coach, but we also get one about Jesse and his wife and girlfriend; not only do we get one about his wife and girlfriend, but we also get one about the Nazis and how they were using the Olympics as a way to let the world know of their brutal regime; not only do we get one about the Nazis and their regime, but we also get to see how the Olympic committee decided on not boycotting the Olympics that year; not only do we get the idea of boycotting or not, but we also get one about German camerawoman Leni Riefenstahl, and how she used her skills as a director to, in ways, undermine Hitler and his messages; and not only do we get this story-line, but we also get one about how a fellow hurdler, German Carl “Luz” Long, saw Jesse for what he was (a great athlete), and decided to let all of that race stuff go to the side.

Did I get everything?

Honestly, I’m not sure, and that’s a huge part of the problem. Race already has a solid story at the center, what with Jesse and all, as conventional as it may be when it comes to race biopics, so when it seems to linger elsewhere and take on all of these different angles, it seems to be too much and a bit disrespectful to Owens. It’s almost as if Hopkins and his team of writers thought that having a Jesse Owens biopic wouldn’t be enough to get people going, so they just decided to take up all of these other different subplots, in a way to cram everything in and distract people from the fact that they don’t really have any actual faith in Owens’ own story.

And for the most part, everything concerning the 1936 Olympics is interesting. It’s nice to see just how everybody acted in that country, at that time, but also, to see just how some people reacted to Nazi Germany, their ways, and their controversial rules, way before anybody actually knew what was going on. At the same time, the movie handles some of these bits and pieces in a hammy way; an almost useless scene concerning Sudeikis’ character looking for shoes late in the night is handled in such a hammy way, that I still have no clue what it was trying to get across. Even the subplot concerning Luz and his random friendship with Owens is so corny, that it feels tacked-on, even if it did happen in real life.

"Thank you for all your service. Now please, walk through the designated bathrooms."
“Thank you for all your service. Now please, walk through the designated bathrooms.”

If anything, the movie really livens up when Jeremy Irons and his character is around. As Avery Brundage, the International Olympic Committee who works as something of a concierge for the U.S., trying to figure out a deal with the Nazis, Irons isn’t just exciting, but fun to watch. He tells the Nazis some stuff that I don’t think the real life Brundage ever had the right idea to say, but it’s interesting just to see how he gets his point across and how, when it came to planning these Olympics, the certain demands both sides had. Obviously, as real life would have it, Brundage becomes more of an unlikable, but for awhile, he seems like the heart and soul of, what was supposed to be, after all, Jesse Owens story.

But that’s neither here nor there.

There is one interesting idea the movie brings up concerning Owens and it’s whether or not he should have actually competed in the Olympics or not. Considering that he was already facing so much unabashed racism and hatred in his own country, it was actually a huge question as to why he would bother representing said country, in an Olympics game to show whom is better than the other? Not to mention, Germany itself was treating people in their own country with the same kind of racism, except with more tragic consequences obviously. So why would Jesse even bother?

The movie brings this idea up and touches on it a couple of times, but really, it’s not enough to get through everything else. At two-hours-and-ten-minutes, yes, Race is jam-packed with the idea that there will never be another Jesse Owens biopic made for quite some time, even though it’s incredibly likely that there probably will be. As well as their should be – Owens himself had made it quite clear that he wasn’t afraid of saying what was on his mind when it came to racism, his thoughts on it, as well as the U.S., but really, none of that’s ever shown here. Instead, Jesse Owens is used as our conduit to explore this much bigger, more interesting world where people are bad and evil, but that’s about it.

I guess as long as you’re fast and can jump really high, people will like you.

Consensus: While there is the occasional interesting thread weaved throughout, Race deals with way too much, in such a messy way, that it feels like a disservice to Owens, as well as everything he stood and fought for.

5 / 10

Fly like an eagle, Jesse. Away from all the Nazis.
Fly like an eagle, Jesse. Away from all the Nazis.

Photos Courtesy of: Movpins


  1. I watched this just yesterday and I agree. Although it balances them well, the movie does have one too many subplots that take away from the focus. Nice review!

  2. yikes. I was looking forward to this since most biopics are solid, but it looks very incoherent and schmaltzy. thanks for the head’s up, Dan!

  3. Agreed with you about this one. It could have been so much more engaging and interesting, but this biopic was definitely a bit of a disservice to Owens.

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