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(USA/Germany/Canada). Drama. Directed by Stephen Hopkins. Starring Stephan James and Jason Sudeikis. Category IIA. 134 minutes. Opened May 5.
Sports movies are always more exciting to watch than the games they’re based on. If you hate baseball, the least effective way to capture your interest is having to sit through an actual baseball game. But you’ll probably still enjoy “Field of Dreams” or “A League of Their Own” for all the narrative gaps they fill between innings: There’s the hero’s journey, a clear opponent, flashy action shots, swelling music, moments of tension and a crucial final tie-breaker. And if “Race” was just about a fast dude with a title to win and some goons to take down, then it would be a pretty exciting track and field flick.
But “Race” is about Jesse Owens, the legendary AfricanAmerican track star whose story is as inspiring and motivational as it gets: Born in 1913 in Alabama and growing up in a racially segregated America, he overcomes every possible adversity, winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games—in front of Adolf Hitler, no less. “Race” has big themes to deal with. A regular old sports flick doesn’t quite cut it.
We meet Owens (Stephan James, “Selma”), at his family home in the 1930s. He’s an affable guy in small-town Ohio with an aw-shucks shrug and love for his working class family. The first of his clan to go to college, on a running scholarship to the less-than-liberal Ohio State University, he is quickly noticed by the coach, Larry Snyder (SNL’s Jason Sudeikis). There’s racial hostility: some ribbing, some guys throwing around the word “monkey” a couple of times, but it gets shut down pretty quickly by Snyder. Owens goes on to win big, setting three world records and tying a fourth in a single race meet. He wins bigger. He competes at the Olympics. The rest: history.
Watching “Race,” you get the distinct impression that it’s the kind of movie that teachers play to their private school students to explain American history. But the film takes all of the nuance—and reality—out of these teachable themes, replacing them instead with convenient narrative beats. It teaches us that racial segregation at its worst is when athletes are withdrawn from competition, or when locker room trash talk gets a little uncomfortable. It teaches us that racism can be solved with a white savior. In “Race,” there is no violence, only the suggestion of violence: Coach Snyder accidently catching glimpse of a group of Jews herded into the back of a truck; Owens getting a little abrasive trying to explain some childhood memories. But before these moments settle, they’re quickly shuffled off by more sports movie crescendoing. The music swells, the crowd’s on their feet and man, when Jesse’s up in the air, he’s really soaring!
Like a cheap seafood buffet, you feel great when consuming “Race,” but after you leave, the discomfort starts. You realize that the writing is clichéd and the direction is heavyhanded, taking superficial visual cues from film noir, German expressionism and the American jazz age—but it all looks overdone and obvious. Meanwhile, the Holocaust seems like a mere inconvenience, rather than the lowest point in humanity. “Race” is a fun sports movie, especially if you don’t care about sports. But as a biopic and as socio-political commentary, it’s at best naïve—and at worst, a betrayal of legendary figure.