‘Race’ Offers A Cookie-Cutter Version Of The Jesse Owens Story

The story upon which Race was based has obvious appeal. Jesse Owens winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Berlin was one of the defining moments of the 20th century. And, as I’ve said on many occasions, I’m a sucker for any story where someone sticks it to Hitler. Trouble is, Race takes this rich subject matter, feeds it into the biopic meat grinder, and out comes a familiar little Blind Side sausage, where a wise (and unlikely!) white mentor helps Jesse Owens eventually triumph over after-school special racism. All the requisite hoary biopic scenes are here — Owens’ coach grabbing his hat brim in shock as he beholds his stopwatch numbers. Bad guys shouting racial slurs and screeching off in a truck. The protagonist pummeling innocent furniture, so torn apart is he by inner turmoil.

I’ll never understand it: Why do so many biopic directors want to depict singular moments in history just to shoot scenes we’ve already seen?

Race opens on a dejected Larry Snyder (played by Jason Sudeikis) moping his way out of an Ohio State track meet after his team has blown yet another meet. Right off the bat you know this movie’s in trouble. For one because we’re opening with the narrative of Larry Snyder. This is a story about Jesse Owens and Hitler, the Third Reich and Jim Crow, about Leni Reifenstahl and the Hindenburg: Why the hell are we wasting time on a track coach? After opening with a strange narrative choice, Race then proceeds to execute it badly. We get a voice-of-God radio announcer delivering Snyder’s third-rate backstory. “Larry Snydah sure was a helluva runnah back in his day, but he hasn’t had much luck as a coach!” (“Heavens ta Betsy, I shuwah hope this down-on-his lucky Calamity Joe meets a young prodigy who toins his whole woild topsy-toivy!”)

This hammily-delivered exposition of Larry Snyder’s track-star past is rendered completely unnecessary just minutes later, by the way, when Jesse Owens (played by Stephan James) gets called into Snyder’s office for a gruff pep talk. Immediately, he notices an old picture of Snyder on the wall. “Is that you at the 1924 Olympic trials, sir?” “Why, it sure is, Jesse! Didn’t you hear the radio announcer say so five minutes ago?” Unfortunately you’ll need to wait for a more dramatic moment for the Gipper to explain why he never actually made the team. (Again, the film using the track coach’s past of all things for a big reveal is telling.)

Now, I’m not saying Jason Sudeikis isn’t a delight to watch, and perfectly cast as a big-hearted Midwesterner with a smart haircut who looks great in tweedy suits, but with all the interesting angles of this story, do we really need 40 minutes of mentor bonding? Rocky, The King’s Speech, The Blind Side — how many times do we need to follow this template? This is the guy who stuck it to Hitler. Stop treating him like Seabiscuit.

Once Owens becomes a college track star (thanks to all the mentoring!), he starts getting pressure to boycott the ’36 Olympics, which Hitler intends as National Socialism’s coming-out party. Now, this is actually an interesting conflict. Does going to compete in a totalitarian regime help legitimize that regime, or is sport above that? Does doing what Hitler wants help him or can you participate in someone else’s propaganda campaign for your own subversive ends? This is a question the world still struggles over (see: the pushback over Dennis Rodman’s North Korea trips, the competing U.S./Soviet Olympic boycotts in 1980 and 1984).

Against the protests of a lot of well-meaning folks, Owens, and the U.S. Olympic team eventually decided against boycotting. Owens trounced the Germans, sticking it to Hitler, becoming a hero to both black and white Americans, and giving the U.S. a propaganda victory at a time when we had plenty of our own race problems. (Owens later said it was FDR, not Hitler, who snubbed him, never so much as sending a telegram.) Plenty of that story is in Race, of course. I just think the boycott-or-not question deserved more development than just one scene of an NAACP man explaining why Owens should boycott and one scene of Owens knocking over some furniture from the stress of his decision. This dilemma gets roughly as much screen time, come to think of it, as the conflict over whether Owens should train with his own coach or the U.S. Olympic coaches in Berlin. To paraphrase Karen Sisco in Out of Sight… guys, really, who gives a sh*t?

Race‘s director Stephen Hopkins (Predator 2, House of Lies) and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel (JOE SHRAPNEL) and Anna Waterhouse take this endlessly nuanced story and treat it like they’re trying to explain history to fifth-graders. The Nazis are represented largely in the form of Barnaby Metschurat as Joseph Goebbels. Would you believe that he’s imperious and sneering? The guy might as well be vowing revenge under his breath while petting a fluffy kitty. Wouldn’t it be nice if real-life evil always advertised itself with action-movie imagery?

Okay, they’re Nazis, maybe they’re supposed to be comic-booky. Fine. Even allowing that, Race‘s Jesse Owens doesn’t look much like Jesse Owens. I guess I can understand if they thought trying to recreate Owens’ distinctive teeth would’ve been a little much, but couldn’t they have at least gotten his hair right? Or the way he ran? Stephan James runs more like Tom Cruise in Collateral than Jesse Owens at the ’36 Olympics.

Not surprisingly, Race is at its best once it gets to the actual Olympics. One of the most successful storylines is the relationship between Owens and German long jumper Luz Long (played Germanly by David Kross), whose display of sportsmanship and humanity toward his rival are arguably as worthy of commemoration as Owens’ medals. You don’t have to run the fastest or jump the farthest to be a good human being. The story of Leni Reifenstahl — the legendary Triumph of the Will propagandist, played here by Game Of Thrones‘ Carice Van Houten — works its way into Race as well, as she tries to subtly undermine Hitler’s message even while working as his mouthpiece. At least, that’s what I think the movie was trying to say, partially formed as her subplot is. This might have been an interesting angle for Race, perhaps drawing a parallel between the way Jesse Owens had accepted Hitler’s invitation to compete, and Reifenstahl had accepted his invitation to film, both decisions that they took heat for, even as they were using the opportunity to undermine Hitler’s message.

But the Leni-Jesse story is a little hard to get into when you’re already trying to tell the Jesse-Luz story, the Jesse-Jesse’s women story, and of course the all-important Jesse-Larry Snyder story. Race is just as guilty of picking too many angles as it is of picking the wrong ones. And in the end, I’m left with a takeaway typical of derivative biopics: If you want to see some uplifting schmaltz, you’re better off watching Seabiscuit. If you want to see the Jesse Owens story, you’re better off watching a documentary.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.