Monday, February 22, 2016

Race (**)

Directed by Stephen Hopkins


Race is a movie that means well. It has its heart in the right place, the same way that Brian Helgeland's 2013 film 42 did when it attempted to make a biopic about Jackie Robinson. The problem with both films is that neither seem all that interested in who these athletes were as men, but instead gets caught up in the all-too-familiar mythology of American heroism. Actor Stephen James is doing his best here as Jessie Owens, the record-breaking Olympian who faced harsh racism at home, only to compete overseas in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and see that discrimination takes many forms. Stephen Hopkins' film is a bit pre-occupied with the politics surrounding the burgeoning influence of the dangerous Nazi party in Europe. In fact, nearly half of the film deals with it. It's a nifty trick that American films have been pulling off for the better part of a century, showcasing the despicable nature of the Nazi regime so that the despicable nature of American racism in both its past and present won't seem all too bad by comparison. It's a tired screenwriting ploy that favors American exceptionalism even when it claims to be doing the opposite. When Race does choose to focus on Jesse Owens, what we get is actually a tidy, entertaining sports movie about a young athlete that learns the unfortunate truth about popular competition, and gets a lesson in what it means to be a black man of stature in 1930's America.

James 'Jesse' Owens was the first in his family to get into college, after being accepted to Ohio State University on a track scholarship. OSU sits in the heartland of Columbus, Ohio, a town not known for its acceptance of negroes, exceptional or otherwise. Jesse chooses OSU because he wants to be coached by Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) a former Olympian and OSU legend. He holds all the school's records and has returned like a good son to coach the program back to prominence. Larry is dealing with a rough streak of high-profile losses before Jesse arrives with a reputation as being "a natural". Larry warns his newest track star, he doesn't believe in naturals, he believes in skill and hard work. He knows that Jesse has the speed, but does he have the work ethic? Does he have the mental fortitude? Larry's language is all coded, but Jesse quickly sees through it. This coach would never question the mental composition of a white athlete. Still, Jesse wants to be coached by Snyder at OSU. He sees this as his main chance at winning an Olympic medal. Both Jesse and his friend Dave (Eli Goree) meet immediate racism on the OSU campus, mostly in the form of the heralded football team that shouts nasty epithets while they practice and refuses to allow the boys to shower until they're finished. Jesse has a very pragmatic mind, and rarely allows their intolerance to get the better of him, but he is also not blind to it. His defiance shows itself in his talent on the track, where he's unafraid to showcase a flair to his otherworldly ability.

Meanwhile, as the world approaches the 1936 Berlin Olympics, there is unrest amongst the United States Olympic Committee who feel like their athletes should be held out of competition in protest of Adolf Hitler's hateful regime. Germany disallowing Jewish athletes from a proper chance at qualifying mystifies Committee chairman Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), while influential committee member Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) feels that no athlete should get their opportunity at an Olympic medal taken away from them for political reasons. The committee agrees to send Brundage to Berlin to make sure that the games are run in a fair, indiscriminate fashion before voting on whether or not to boycott. In Germany, Brundage gets a seat with prized Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice von Houton) and the empowered Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Matschurat). Brundage is forceful in his demands: the Germans will not let the games become a statement for Hitler's views of Aryan purity, and all athletes, despite their race or religion, will be given a proper chance to compete. On Goebbels' word, Brundage returns to the US to insure Germany's cooperation, thus insuring the committee's vote against a boycott. With his Olympic ticket stamped, Jesse Owens begins feeling pressure from NAACP, who feel that if the committee won't hold a boycott, then black athletes should stage their own, not only to show their solidarity with the oppressed overseas, but to protest the oppression they themselves receive in America.

The push and pull that Jesse receives from everyone from black leaders to his own coach is messy complicated stuff, but Race takes only a tangential glance at it. The film is too busy explaining details of pre-World War II history that most people already know, or at least were aware of implicitly. The amount of time and events that Race hopes to cover makes you wonder if this was originally planned as a mini-series. The brilliance of Spike Lee's 1992 biopic Malcolm X is that it earns its 200-minute runtime, because it knows that everything that it's showing is essential. It does not try to trim for a friendlier runtime, nor does it feel the need to support its main character with historical context. Race and its director, Stephen Hopkins, obviously have a great respect and admiration for Jesse Owens, but they seem so afraid of letting his story stand on its own that the movie then just descends into another anti-Nazi film which we've seen so many times before. Nothing is wrong with bashing Nazis, but in a biopic that could have done so much toward showcasing Owens as a human being in the face of such horrid American behavior, Race instead decides to show us the deplorable behavior of another country. I guess that's an easier pill for general audiences to swallow, but its a cheat and one that makes Race feel like a stuffy, traditional biopic as opposed to what it could have been.

Stephen James' work here is admirable enough, but this screenplay (by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse) doesn't really create much of a character. He's passive until its convenient for him not to be. I'd venture to think that we'd see something more interesting from James if he was asked to play a person instead of an ideal. Casting comedian Jason Sudeikis as Snyder is a bit of a gamble, for several reasons - he's never done drama and he doesn't really look like an athlete - and it breaks about even as to whether that gamble actually pays off. Larry Snyder's character arc is a bit more compelling than Jesse Owens' is, and Sudeikis has a handful of charming moments as a man whose racism is not explicit but institutional; his moments with Owens teach him that he can still be more tolerant. The surrounding ensemble is serviceable enough. Hurt and Irons are a fun little aside debating the separation of sports and politics, while von Houton and Matschurat perform an interesting play of disagreement between major players within the Hitler regime (how historically accurate this rift between Riefenstahl and Goebbels actually is, I could not say, but that does not seem to be the aim of anything in this film). The movie's filmmaking is impressive enough, proving that CGI isn't only useful in Transformers movies, and director Stephen Hopkins understands the importance composing strong shots around his lead star. There is a good biography in Race, but its focus isn't narrow enough, and it gets too easily swayed by the sight of swastikas and Hitler's mustache. It too often forgets that Jesse Owens is the true star, which is similar to what happened to Owens in his actual life.

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