5 out of 10
Stephan James as Jesse Owens
Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Making a biopic, or any sort of historical re-enactment, set around momentous world events seems like an easy decision offering built-in conflict and drama, but more often than not it’s the opposite which is true. The importance of the events and personalities involved usually makes them well known, which not only ruins narrative surprise but tends to push filmmakers towards rote repetition of facts as opposed to any sort of insight.
The trick, if that’s the road you still want to go down, is to find some sort of different perspective on the known quantities, giving them a different cast and offering new thoughts. The danger there being the risk of going so far afield you quickly lose sight of the story you started with. All of these are landmines which must be avoided for a tricky genre whose easy charms are often more fool’s gold than the real thing.
And all of these are landmines which are stepped on in the story of Jesse Owens (James), one of America’s greatest ever athletes and a symbol against the ideals of the rising Nazi party when just such a symbol was needed.
A preternaturally-gifted runner, he was hoist as the counter-argument to Hitler’s regime of racial purity all while undergoing very similar discrimination at home. It makes for a strong but obvious comparison pinpointing the irony of Americans, so aghast at Hitler, thinking nothing of racial segregation and their own behavior.
It’s a cogent point to make, and very relevant, but the filmmakers are so aware of that fact they can’t help but becoming overly textual and heavy handed about the subject. Yes, maybe important subjects are worth handling that way (at least if you think the idea itself is more important than how it’s transmitted, at which point you’re probably not interested in art any longer), but it doesn’t make for particularly good stories.
Like a lot of films with strong social messages, Race doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve as much as the tip of its nose, and can never seem to manage anything else. What everyone involved seems to have forgotten is that having easy points to make tends to lead to easy films being made with characters and plots which can’t or won’t take the chances needed to surprise.
It’s a problem particularly prevalent in the biopic where the temptation to make its subject an icon is almost impossible to resist. Owens was a symbol against the viewpoint of the increasingly-powerful Nazi Germany, a stand in for what many sensed would shortly be the defining event of the 20th Century: World War II.
Faced with the towering (and at this point almost clichéd) villainy of the Nazis, the filmmakers fight continuously against the urge to turn Owens into their opposite, an egalitarian superman. James is strong in the role and director Stephen Hopkins is willing to give us a glimpse of some of his more human failings – primarily in a very brief spat of infidelity – but can’t keep up the pace.
Instead, it repeatedly loses interest in him, tilting away to spend time with his far more dynamic coach (Sudeikis, in his best dramatic performance to date) or in particularly bizarre fashion, German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (van Houten).
The intent is good, offering the new perspective such a film needs, but losing the plot in the process. Hopkins and his screenwriters have twin interests in mind: the first to look at the various individuals involved with the actual Berlin Olympics – focusing on the independent interactions of Riefenstahl and US Olympic Commission Avery Brundage (Irons) with German propagandist Joseph Goebbels (Metschurat) – and question how tainted they are by association with such evil.
The second is the obvious but necessary contrast between how Americans respond to Nazi Germany’s odious racial purity tenants and the way they treat their citizens of color at home. These are good points to make, and Race attempts to even combine them together as Owens is asked not to attend the games he is almost certain to win in order to point out how such ideas should not be dealt with and given legitimacy but turned away from and shamed into obsolescence.
But beyond the suggestion, the film (and its makers) don’t know how to dramatize such ideas and instead head down strange alleys such as trying to rehabilitate Riefenstahl’s reputation as a collaborator, suggesting she was actually struggling to tell the truth in a repressive regime and is at least partially responsible for Owens story coming down to us.
[Whatever you think of Riefenstahl as a person, she was an excellent director and both The Blue Light and Lowlands are worth your time].
The result is a film which prefers to focus on anyone but its main character, leaving the person who should be our point of view a remote statue, someone we look up to but can’t recognize as human.
It’s a problem they never seem to get out of. Deciding early on that there is no drama in Owens’ actual races, the film tends to skip past them and barely even build to them, preferring to focus on the background politics around whether he can or should race.
It’s muddled to say the least, and it’s a muddle which extends to every aspect of the film; even the cinematography is under-lit and flat creating a flat and frequently-ugly film. But the main problem is none of the attempts it makes to escape the gravity of well-known events actually work, and some of them make the story actively worse.
The films which manage to avoid these perils do tend to become perennials, which is why people keep trying, but they are few and far between, buried among the vast bulk which attempted the same leap and failed.