A movie can't be successful artistically just on good intentions. If that were the case then "Race" would be the best picture of the year (or of many years). Alas, a modern telling of the story of Jesse Owens with a good-sized budget to hire a few great actors and recreate the Olympics will have to do. However, by telling his story in the typical bio-pic fashion, audiences are robbed of some of the darkest nuances of his experience.
"Race" tells the true story of Jesse Owens, an African American runner who (SPOILER ALERT), went to the Olympics in Berlin under Hitler's regime and came home with four gold medals. Luckily the film doesn't give us Owen's entire life story (though the 136-minute running time feels slightly punishing), but instead plops the audience in as he heads off to Ohio State University.
Owens was already well-known as a track and field star, so he joins the team coached by Larry Snyder, who butts heads with him in a very Lifetime Movie-Of-The-Week sort of way. Owens begins training for the Olympics and the only real drama is whether he should go or instead protest the games as a show of solidarity with the Jewish people of Germany. The audience knows he's going, so the manufactured drama, regardless of historical accuracy, is tiresome.
The event-by-important-event story of Jesse Owens' life is wholly unsatisfyingly told in "Race." The problem is that there were a few other more interesting stories to be told lurking under the surface. It's never fair to judge a film based on what it could or should have been, but on whether the filmmakers successfully told the story they set out to make. On that front, audiences will leave the theater knowing quite a bit more about the story of Jesse Owens' accomplishments, but not necessarily the man himself. Stephen James (who replaced "Star Wars" bound John Boyega) does an admirable job, but the script doesn't give him much to work with and he never really gets beneath Owens' affable demeanor.
The truly powerful story that could have been told peeks around the corner every once and awhile. Aside from his coach and the other black athletes, every single person Owens comes into contact with at Ohio State University is a serious racist. When he comes out on the field, they boo him just for being a black person, but when he starts winning, they love him. All of a sudden he is surrounded by cheers and an adoring public miraculously caring about him.
America's racism in the 1930s wasn't just systemic and political, but also cultural. Scenes with Owens coming back from the Olympics and still having to use the back door to go into fancy hotels says more about "Race" than watching him run the 100-meter dash ever could.
There are very strong moments and ideas in "Race," but that won't cut it with a subject this powerful. When a story is important, it should be told importantly and with grace instead of resting on the idea that just telling it is enough. This might be OK for educating people about what the man accomplished, but it hasn't enough to say about what those accomplishments truly mean.
Dir. Stephen Hopkins
Now Playing at Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX