Race (2016)

02/26/2016  By  Jordan Saïd     No comments

As you might guess, the 2016 biopic Race’s title contains a double meaning: it refers to famous Olympic runner Jesse Owens racing to win gold medals in the 1936 Olympics, and Owens’ black skin. The two meanings result in two separate plot threads, neither of which adds up to enough to make a compelling story.

Stephan James stars as Jesse Owens, the infectiously optimistic young runner from Ohio. Jesse struggles to make a better future for himself, despite his limited college-student income and his family’s poverty. He struggles to put food on the table for his fiancée Ruth (Shanice Banton) and their baby daughter Gloria. He matriculates to Ohio State University, where he stands out quickly for his running ability. He strikes up a friendship with Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), a struggling track coach and former Olympic athlete. Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee hems and haws over whether to boycott the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin as a show of protest against the rise of the Nazis. Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), an independently wealthy member, urges the rest of the committee not to boycott, as holding the games lines up with his personal and financial interests. You can probably guess where this goes if you’ve heard of Jesse Owens.

Too late for a spoiler alert? Oops. Sorry.

The film centers on one dilemma: if America participates in the Olympics, does that constitute approbation or defiance of Nazi Germany? Subsequently, Jesse Owens could participate and beat the Nazi athletes in contradiction of their “master race” rhetoric, or he could stay home and boycott the Olympics in protest. So he has to ask himself which makes the more powerful statement and which reflects his ambitions. This would make a great premise, except writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse seem to tacitly know it can’t support an entire feature film. They still try their damnedest, though. Owens’ hand-wringing takes up about half the film, to the point that the actual Olympic events feel anticlimactic and boring when we finally see them.

Race flags primarily because it believes that quantity of subplots trumps quality. The film spends as much time dealing with the internecine politics of the all-white Olympic Committee as it does with the primarily black cast of Owens’ acquaintances, despite that the two threads only coalesce briefly. Another, even less relevant subplot has Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) filming the Olympics and fighting against Joseph Goebbels’ (Barnaby Metschurat) racism to do the event justice. The writers try to make the film about something bigger than Owens himself, but by shoehorning in subplots about the International Olympic Committee and the Nazi top brass, the film appears to lose interest in Owens entirely.

Hitler and Goebbels attend the Olympics and nobody has the common decency to assassinate them.

An unnecessary subplot has Jesse dumping Ruth by shutting her out and hooking up with another woman. Because the film can’t present Jesse as a flawed man, the screenplay paints him as the naïve victim of a Jezebel figure. Jesse then becomes the hero for getting his head straight and dumping the woman, conveniently forgetting that he consented to the affair. As usual, the woman gets most of the blame. Jesse then wins Ruth back by stalking her, Ruth inexplicably marries him, and the subplot ends with no follow up.

Barring Jesse and Ruth, everyone in this family shot gets less screen time, lines, and development than the Nazis.

Stephan James brings a palpable enthusiasm, but he looks nothing like the real Owens. Most of the other actors do passable jobs; only Metschurat stands out as the quietly intimidating, fulminating Goebbels. Sudeikis plays Snyder as an old cliché: the equal-opportunity asshole whom the writers expect us to like because his asperity doesn’t discriminate. Snyder speaks mostly in platitudes. He bellows to Owens that records don’t matter; medals do… but if he’d taken calculus at that college, he’d know that a world record would mathematically result in a medal. A global maximum is a local maximum.

Take note, masculist assholes of the Internet. Fedoras or microwave taquitos. Not both.

Despite its title and the writers’ clear cognizance of white privilege, the film has a strangely clunky attitude regarding race. When Snyder first meets Owens, he describes the necessary commitment by saying, “You belong to me.” Something about a “good” white character saying that to a black protagonist doesn’t sit right. The cheating subplot also subtly advances the all-too-pervasive absent-black-father stereotype. Race also has a bizarre bias where it depicts any character who facilitates what really happened as a good guy and anyone who threatens to change what happened in real life as a villain. Owens never develops, giving the impression that he hatched out of an egg with his current personality. Glynn Turman plays an unctuous, wolfish NAACP officer who tries to dissuade Owens from participating. Considering the NAACP still exists with the same mission, it feels wrong to see the organization demonized. Conversely, the film portrays Brundage sympathetically until the time comes in the narrative when he has to make good on the promises he made the Nazis, at which point he spontaneously turns into a jerk.

Most of all, Race suffers from a common problem with mediocre biographies: Owens doesn’t change. From college to cheating on his fiancée to winning the Olympics, he retains that same aw-shucks, enthusiastic student mentality. Jesse Owens only changes in his accomplishments, but in no way to we get the sense that anything we just watched for two hours gave him the will or the strength to win. Only two characters actually evolve and show signs of learning something… both white men. So if Owens doesn’t change, what can we learn from his story? To get good at running? Well, I may not like running, but it definitely seems more fulfilling than watching a stale biopic that has nothing substantial to say even about its own subject or title.

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Period Detail
Character Development
Handling of White Privilege
Any reason not to just hit up Wikipedia instead.

About Jordan Saïd


Jordan Saïd does mathematics by day and writes for Front Row Central and Turban Decay by night (and weekend). He specializes in American road films, kung fu cinema, and camp (the aesthetic, not the wilderness). He lives in Eastern Washington with five cats.

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