“Race,” the new Jesse Owens biopic, is a fairly conventional film that doesn’t completely live up to the subject matter it represents, but through strong acting, an uplifting story, and the kind of drama that still makes audiences wonder what is going to happen -- even though it’s a matter of historical record -- the film is not a total loss.
Starring Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, William Hurt, Carice van Houten, Amanda Crew and Jeremy Irons, “Race” is the second biographical feature about the athlete Jesse Owens and his quest to become a record-setting Olympian in the 1936 Berlin games, despite extreme racism and disrespect from around the world. This film has a lot of good qualities, but a fair amount of disappointing aspects, as well.
Jesse Owens (played by James in the film) went to Ohio State University in the 1930s and would go on to become a major track and field success in the 1936 Olympics. While in school, he learned more about his sport and how to succeed as an Olympian from his coach, Larry Snyder (Sudeikis), who at one time had a prestigious track career of his own. When Owens was in his prime, racism, segregation, and persecution of black Americans was commonplace. Owens goes on to represent his country nonetheless at the Olympics, which were held in a place where discrimination was even more overt -- Nazi Germany during Adolf Hitler’s regime.
In the film, Stephan James plays Owens, and gives a very strong performance. At one point, actor John Boyega was set to star as Owens, but dropped out due to his role in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” After seeing a picture of the real Owens, I imagined a younger version of actor Anthony Mackie, but Owens does a more than adequate job. Similarly, Sudeikis does a solid job as Larry Snyder, in the first major dramatic role I’ve seen him in. He shows a toned-down version of his typical comic relief, coupled with the inherent drama of his often drunken character.
There are many shots and scenes that involve old-timey cities, buildings, stadiums, and the like, but, unfortunately, they often have that shiny, glossy, computer-generated look to it, similar to a Zack Snyder film or various superhero adaptations. The film was apparently shot in Canada and on location in Berlin for the Olympic Stadium, but even the stadium looks enhanced. I suppose this look could come from a certain camera filter or effect, if not somewhat or completely created on a computer or with a green screen. This doesn’t ruin the film, but I usually prefer at least realistic-looking visuals.
Like many period pieces, the work that went into transporting the audience to the 1930s is apparent. Most everything, from the vintage clothing to the older cars, feel authentic, which adds to the disappointment of the digitally-aided establishing shots. The film even utilizes some newsreel footage during and surrounding the Olympics, which works well with the established time period.
The racism towards black and Jewish people is often overt and hard to watch in the film. Nazi Germany’s oppression of the Jewish people was well underway, and they barely acknowledged the black athletes during the Olympics. Life was not always ideal for Owens. Even after his successes, he was not just another black man at home. That is painfully illustrated in a later scene of Owen and his wife attending a ceremony for his accomplishments, where the athlete still must use a separate entrance from white attendees.
The film is a bit long, running 2 hours and 14 minutes. It strongly reminded me of Angelina Jolie’s film, “Unbroken,” which also involved a heavy story about strength, courage, endurance, determination, but was also overly long and had many of the same faults. They are both inspiring stories, but simply have a lot of narrative to tell.
One of the elements I liked best was how proud Owens’ success made me to be an American, and how amusing it was to see the Germans get so angry with a black American winning the way he did. Conditions and ideals have drastically changed since then and it’s very curious and sometimes shocking to see what it was like in those times. Another aspect I enjoyed was that, even though this story is historical knowledge to some, it didn’t lessen any of the drama or anticipation for what was going to happen next.
Rated 3 out of 5 stars.
“Race” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language.