Jesse Owens is a fascinating individual and he absolutely deserves a biopic, but Race is not it. Interestingly enough, the title gives away many of the film’s faults: it conflates racism and running to an uncomfortable degree. Stephen Hopkins’ movie is almost completely devoid of subtlety – it’s so naive, it hurts.
Race follows Owens from the day he leaves for college to his fateful appearance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Hopkins (along with screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse) rushes through Owens’ life in order to fit everything into a conventional runtime. In doing so, the production glosses over several important key events as if they’re unimportant and amplifies minor details. Race doesn’t seem to realize that its story is not about running, which explains why the audience receives too many lengthy sequences of running and jumping. Meanwhile, a conflict involving the president not inviting Owens to the white house or acknowledging the athlete’s accomplishments is reduced to a single footnote.
If Race’s mission was to deliver an underdog story, the film’s naïveté is almost tolerable. However, more often, Stephen Hopkins’ contextual misunderstandings are impossible to endure. In one scene, a white coach tells Owens that he owns him. In another, a German athlete says that Germany’s ugly people are hidden away. The fact that both scenes are lighthearted and yet take place in 1936 (both in Germany and in the United States) really shows some ignorance on the director’s part. These could be forgiven as small mistakes if not for the fact that the racism in both countries is heavily downplayed, often looking like nothing more than a small annoyance.
Not everything in this film is awful. Stephen James’ performance as Jesse Owens is fairly commendable, and the battling screen presences of Jeremy Irons and William Hurt is a delight. Otherwise, Race is just another example of how Hollywood mistreats stories of black individuals by giving them away to clueless filmmakers.
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Shahbaz Khayambashi: @Shakhayam