Movie Review: Race (2016)
I shouldn’t find this shocking but I do: Stephan James is only the fifth actor to ever play Jesse Owens on TV or in the movies. Chronologically:
- Garrett Morris in a 1976 “SNL” skit: “Jesse Owens presents a set of commemorative medals honoring white athletes”
- Dorian Harewood in a 1984 TV biopic
- Ronnie Britton in a 1988 TV movie about IOC president Avery Brundage
- Bangalie Keita in the 2014 feature film “Unbroken”
I bring it up for two reasons: 1) It’s indicative of the racism implied in the film’s title; and 2) we still don’t see much of Jesse Owens here. He’s in almost every scene but he’s basically MIA from his own biopic.
What was Jesse Owens like? According to screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (“Frankie & Alice”), and director Stephen Hopkins (“Lost in Space,” “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers”)—white folks all, by the way—Owens was a dutiful son, a good listener, a mostly loyal boyfriend/husband. Politically, he’s ... I don’t know. Academically, he’s ... whatever. In sum: he’s a decent guy who runs/jumps fast. Thanks for coming.
Should I stay or should I go?
“Race” tries as hard as possible to insult none of us so it insults all of us. It takes us from Jesse Owens’ first day at Ohio State University in the fall of 1933 to the glory of his four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics. But we know he wins four gold. So where’s the drama?
This is what they try.
Learning to focus: On the OSU campus, Owens has to deal with a tough schedule (classes, track, part-time job) and racism, and coach Larry Snyder (SNL’s Jason Sudekis, better than I expected) solves both. He gets Jesse a sinecure with the state legislature so he can give up the part-time job; and while he doesn’t exactly solve racism, he helps Jesse deal with it. It’s a good scene, actually. In the locker room, with the football team yelling the usual shit football teams yell (even when they’re not racists), Snyder teaches Owens to block out the noise and focus on what matters.
Losing his focus: After setting three world records at a Big 10 track meet, he becomes known as “The world’s fastest human.” Fame leads to a fling with a beautiful, ritzy girl (Chantel Riley), but that causes him to lose his focus and that causes him to lose a race. It’s basically “The Natural,” with Quincella in the Kim Basinger role, and the girl back home, Ruth (Shanice Banton), playing Glenn Close. But all is righted again. Except...
Hell no, we won’t go: There’s a subplot about whether the U.S. will even attend the games, since Nazis/Jews/etc., but Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, makes it happen. Then Jesse is counseled against attending by an NAACP rep for reasons that remain murky. Because of racism abroad? Racism at home? “Master Race” rhetoric? This goes on for half an hour even though we know the outcome. We wouldn’t be watching if he’d missed the ’36 Games.
Summertime for Hitler: In Berlin, it’s little dramas. Will Jesse be allowed to train the way he likes or will Snyder’s bęte noire, Coach Dean Cromwell, block him? (He trains the way he likes.) Will he make the preliminaries in the long jump? (Yes.) Will Hitler shake his hand? (No.) Are Owens and another black athlete replacing two Jewish athletes in the 4x100 sprint relay to placate the Nazis? (Yes.)
Surely there’s better drama to be mined.
The key figure in the movie is Avery Brundage, and Irons is good in the role, but it’s all so reductive. The real Brundage was virulently anti-communist to the point of being pro-fascist (cf., William Randolph Hearst), and he may have been anti-Semitic. But the movie tones all of this down in favor of a simple, barrel-chested businessman who: 1) tells Goebbels to hide anti-Jewish policies so the U.S. won’t boycott (as if Goebbels needed propaganda advice); 2) allows himself to become part of a business deal with Nazi Germany, which is then 3) used to blackmail Brundage to kick off the two Jewish athletes in the 4x100 relay.
We get nothing on Owens’ sad, later life: racing horses to make a living, the business and commercial deals that fell through. He declared bankruptcy in the 1950s and was prosecuted for tax evasion in 1966. In the movie, Snyder tells Owens that some young punk can break your record but a medal is forever. The real Jesse Owens said, “I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals."
There’s so much gloss here it’s tough to see the history beneath. The real drama in Jesse Owens’ story is defeating racism abroad and being defeated by it at home. But that’s too much drama (by half) for modern-day Hollywood.