Would it come as a surprise to anyone if I said I didn’t know anything about Jesse Owen? Yeah, I’m not a history buff, but that’s why biopics are made: to raise awareness of a person or group of people with a unique story to tell that may not be known by the general masses. About all I knew about Jesse Owens was that he was an Olympic runner of some kind and our government at the time never acknowledged his accomplishments… for some reason, until his death many years later. That’s as far as my knowledge goes and even THAT was from reading it off a friend’s Facebook status. In any case, I didn’t want to spend a weekend at work with limited movie viewing time with guests asking me how I liked the movie and give the lame answer, “I haven’t seen it.” I hate that. So without further adieu, this my honest opinion of RACE.
This is a biopic about the famed track and field runner, Jesse Owens. Set in the backdrop of 1936, Jesse (Stephan James) is a determined athlete, specializing in running, to enter the Olympics in Berlin, Germany. His first stop is attending Ohio State University, where he meets his disgruntled and overly strict white coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). He soon proves that he has the skills and talent to get into the Olympics, and so begins a dramatic journey of romantic affairs, racial shaming, and one young man’s determination to be the best Olympic athlete the world has every seen.
I got a buddy who might cock his eyebrow at this considering I told him I liked it, which… may not be… as accurate now that I’ve had time to let the movie sink in. While I won’t say it’s a bad movie, it’s not, but there are some pretty noticeable problems.
Now, having been born nearly ten years after Jesse Owens’ death, I can’t claim to have known the man, and I haven’t found any sources that pertain to his personality, but the character that was portrayed on screen is… well, a bit of a cliche. Often in these racially charged stories, we get one of two types of black leads. One is a hot head with attitude who gets into trouble, but has a kind heart and wants to do good. The other is the quiet, the incredibly polite, accepting of social norms kind of guy whom the movie places on a high horse of morality. This is how Jesse is portrayed, his head is down all the time in the presence of white people, very quiet, soft spoken, and… well, this just makes him a character I’ve seen a hundred times over. Hey, maybe that’s how Jesse really was and this was an accurate portrayal, and that’s fine. Ain’t saying that he’s a bad guy or anything, but it’s not… an interesting aspect to tell.
Jesse’s coach, Larry, isn’t any better. He’s introduced as the overly strict and “winning is the only thing that matters” mentality, starting off almost cruel to Jesse at first. Seriously, it’s like watching THE MIGHTY DUCKS! Convince me the formula doesn’t match! Right down to the arch where we see that this coach isn’t all bad and the two eventually become really close friends. I sighed a couple times.
There are also a couple story elements that seemed out of place.
In the beginning of the movie, we’re shown that Jesse has a serious girlfriend, Ruth, played by Shanice Banton, and a cute-as-a-bunny daughter. He’s very loving and affectionate and gives that song and dance that he’s doing all of this for them. Soon as he starts gaining momentum and does a bit of traveling to make waves and get into the Olympics, he’s in a club with friends and a pretty girl walks in. She recognizes Jesse and basically starts an affair. Um… why is he starting an affair? At no point in this story were we shown that Jesse has a weakness for women, or that he in any way doesn’t have his shit together. His girlfriend is sweet and kind, so… what led to this affair other than a pretty face? To make matters worse, the affair has almost no consequences. Oh sure, the scandal hits the newspapers and Ruth catches wind of it. She’s devastated right in front of family, co-workers, friends, and possibly total strangers. Of course, Jesse FINALLY sees his mistake and wants to make it up to Ruth, who will wisely have none of it. One would think that now Jesse has to jump through some serious hoops to get back into Ruth’s good graces. What is this epic feat that he follows through with to get the love of his life back? He… sits outside for a few hours watching her. Yeah… that’s all he does. And to make matters worse, that works. Yup, that affair had no consequences, so it didn’t need to be shown in the movie.
It’s not the only one either. Jesse and his family are paid a visit by a black priest who cautions Jesse to not go to the Olympics, as it may actually cause more problems in America for the black community. Admittedly, I don’t remember the reasoning as to why or how, I might have missed that, but we see that this is a big deal to Jesse. He has a conflict of interest and, through some very good acting by James, we see that he’s really torn up about the decision. He will later say that he will not go to the Olympics, but then through… a cheaply short conversation with Ruth, he decides to go against his decision and go to the Olympics anyway. Alright, this is interesting. We were told that if he goes, it will cause problems for folks back home. What are we shown? Not a damn thing. Yup, not a bloody thing. In fact, everyone seems rather content with life crowding around their radios listening to the broadcasts of the events. Well, shit. Why raise the stakes if it isn’t going to play a part in the overall story? Wouldn’t it have been better to show the problems Jesse caused back home and see how it affects him? We can go on Wikipedia any day of the week and know WHAT he did. But we can’t go online and look up how his decisions affected others or even himself really. That would have made for stronger development and maybe even a deeper insight on what happened during that time. Or if there wasn’t anything worth mentioning, then why mention it at all?
There are a few other problems here and there, but I don’t want to sound like this is a bad movie, as there are some things going for it that make this a solid flick that ultimately works well enough.
I’d say the sports stuff is good, but in a biopic about an athlete, the sports stuff BETTER be good, otherwise… yeah, what the hell would it be? So is that really a plus for the movie, or is it just meeting the standard? But yeah, everything involving Jesse doing his thing is pretty exciting to watch. Especially when the Olympic stuff rolls around, the final act of the movie is definitely the best in terms of the sporting events.
The acting is what really drives this film home. Yeah, yeah, I know I was bitching about how the characters were cliches, but you know what? They are. But that doesn’t mean that the actors were bad. In fact, on the contrary, James plays the role of Jesse very convincingly. He holds the movie up well enough and I have no problems LIKING him. Same with Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage, Carice van Houten as Leni Riefenstahl, they’re all serviceable in their roles.
But the real standout in performance that might as well make the movie is Sudeikis. What a terrific performance that almost distracted me from the cliche character! Joining the ranks of most comedians, he delivers a special kind of intensity that I honestly don’t know who else could have played this role. He steals the show in every scene that he’s in. Even when a scene calls for comedy, his delivery for that is great too. In fact, especially in the middle of the movie, the chemistry between Sudeikis and James probably makes for the best and honest moments in the movie. He’s a grouch, but there is a real sort of empathy you feel for him and what he goes through. Too bad we don’t see too much of that, but then the focus wouldn’t be on Jesse Owens, and well… priorities, you know? But yeah, his performance and the way he and James work off of each other makes up for a lot in the movie.
There’s also some really great sportsmanship stuff that happens. Like Jesse shaking another athlete’s hand after a race, another athlete accepting his defeat and asking him to beat his own record, even becoming friends later on, that’s pretty unique stuff that we don’t see very often in sports movies. Not that it’s never been done, of course, but it happens so rarely.
Overall, the movie’s performances are the heart of it. The actors own their incredibly cardboard cutout characters and, as I said, Sudeikis is worth the price of admission alone. They may not succeed in completely distracting from certain senseless detours the story makes that ultimately bring it down, but it’s a solid flick.
My honest rating: 3/5