Review by Siobhan Rich for Mr. Will Wong
The themes of director Stephen Hopkins’ new movie Race can be summed up in one quote: “When you’re running, there is no black and white – only fast and slow.” Race is about more than a track and field competition it is also a commentary on racial issues; many of which remain relevant today.
Race opens several years prior to the Berlin Olympics as Jesse Owens (Stephan James) heads to Ohio State University and coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sukeikis). Although the two eventually form a rough friendship, the audience is constantly reminded of the social disparities between the two. In one early exchange, Snyder outlines his strict training regimen to Owens finishing with a heavy handed, “You belong to me.”
Away from OSU, the US Olympic committee debates the moral implications of whether or not the United States should even compete in the Games being hosted by Nazi Germany. These scenes are meant to set-up the characters pulling the strings in Berlin but serve only to detract from the more important story of Owens himself.
By the time the action moves to pre-World War II Nazi Germany, Owens’ treatment by everyone from fellow students at OSU to members of the coaching Olympic staff is enough to raise the hackles of even the most jaded audience members. Thus, every helping hand and subsequent win is cheered despite the expected golden results.
Biopics often suffer from the fact that too many people are too well-versed in history to make the conflict seem tense or climactic. Thus, for example, when the NAACP ask Owens not to participate in the Olympics as a show of defiance against the openly racist Germany, the audience is perhaps shocked by the demand but not invested in the standoff since the outcome is already known.
The script by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse attempts to be subtle in its retelling of Owens’ story but that is perhaps the problem: the Movie consistently spoon feeds the narrative without allowing characters to develop naturally. Even historic villains in this tale, US Olympic committee member Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and German documentarian Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), among others, are given their redemption through the lens of good intentions.
The key to Hopkins’ film is Toronto’s own Stephan James who embodies the American Olympian with a nuanced touch that was only hinted at in his previous roles. The young Canadian actor often outpaces with his more experienced castmates. Scenes where James’ quiet outrage bubbles beneath the surface are a direct contrast to the more bombastic performance of his comedic costar, Sudeikis.
Jesse Owens was more than a runner, he was also a husband and father with a strong sense of right and wrong who refused to hear the negative cries from people around him and kept his eye on the finish line and Olympic glory. Although Race has little to add to Owen’s already storied legacy it is an important movie to watch in this age of #OscarsSoWhite where racial epitaphs may not be slung as openly as they were in 1936 but are still frustratingly real.
eOne Films release Race in theatres on Friday, February 19, 2016.