Race (2016) – Movie Review
Directed by: Stephen Hopkins
Written: Joe Shrapnal & Anna Waterhouse
Starring: Stephen James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, Carice van Houten & Barnaby Metschurat
Music: Rachel Portman
Release Date: June 3rd 2016
Biopics revolving around prominent African-American figures have started to garner more mainstream appeal in recent years as the world progresses towards acceptance and tolerance (for the most part). We had the Oscar-contender ‘Selma‘ depicting Martin Luther King Jr., the Soloman Northup biopic ‘12 Years A Slave‘ which won “Best Picture” at the Oscars in 2014, Chadwick Boseman portrayed Jackie Robinson in ‘42‘ and James Brown in ‘Get On Up‘, Don Cheadle played Miles Davis in ‘Miles Ahead‘ and the list goes on.
One figure who feels like he should have had a movie DECADES ago is Olympic Athlete Jesse Owens who not only won four Olympic medals in Track and Field, but he did so during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin when the Nazis were rising in power. That is such an awesome story that I’m amazed that ‘Race‘ is the first big-screen movie to tackle the story outside of the documentary format. Yet it hasn’t arrived with much fanfare as it comes from ‘Predator 2‘ and ‘The Reaping‘ director Stephen Hopkins, only carries a $5M budget and doesn’t have many A-list stars. Is less more for such an iconic historical story or is there a reason this movie has made so little impact?
It’s the 1930s and Jesse Owens (James) arrives at Ohio State University to make a name for himself. When there, he applies for track-and-field and attracts the attention of coach and former athlete Larry Snyder (Sudeikis) who agrees to coach him and help him qualify for the 1936 Summer Olympics taking place in Berlin. However, due to uneasy race relations in the U.S. and the stigma attached to black people in a Nazi controlled Germany, not only may Owens not be able to qualify but Owens even doubts whether or not he should qualify as that might justify the Aryan regime in Germany.
With a Jesse Owens biopic, the interesting drama practically writes itself and there are a lot of layers to this story that get plenty of time to breath in the 134 minute film. The movie starts with Jesse leaving home to go to University so the film starts just at the right moment and doesn’t waste any time getting into the selling-point of the story. We follow Jesse’s training, his growing relationship with coach Larry Snyder, his relationship with girlfriend Ruth played by Shanice Banton and we even get a sub-plot involving the Olympic Committee wondering whether or not they can even endorse the event being held in a country that is actively discriminating against Jewish and Black athletes.
It’s this Olympic committee sub-plot that surprised me the most about ‘Race‘ as it adds more context to the story and helps add more history to a movie that’s already got a great story at its centre. Watching Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage negotiate with the head of Nazi propoganda Joseph Goebbels and German film director Leni Riefenstahl about whether or not America should attend the Olympics is riveting stuff that I’m sure many viewers were not privy to. We also have William Hurt who plays impassioned committee member Jeremiah who wants to keep the moral high ground by not legitimising the Nazi regime by attending their event.
Of course, we’re all here to watch Jesse Owens deliver a metaphorical gut-punch to Hitler, but this additional detail really helps flesh out the movie and prevents it from feeling by-the-numbers. Not all the additional details work such as Jesse’s relationship with his future wife Ruth and the movie grinds to a halt whenever her character rears her head. Unfortunately their relationship takes up the bulk of an incredibly elongated second act that feels way too drawn out for its own good (when Jesse and Larry arrive in Germany, there’s still an hour of the movie left) and it feels like the love story was included more as an obligation to the true events as opposed to what belonged in this particular biopic.
Thankfully the main relationship between Jesse and Larry works incredibly well. Half of the time it feels like Jesse doesn’t even need Larry’s help because he’s so naturally gifted, but Larry’s training helps to legitimise the black athlete coming up from nothing in Cleveland in that social context. The movie matter-of-factly portrays “Whites Only” hotels, segregated buses and open contempt at Universities for black students…and this wasn’t even 80 years ago. This attitude wasn’t that long ago, relatively speaking and that’s something worth being reminded of.
Stephen James and Jason Sudeikis have really great chemistry together on-screen and while the actual relationship itself isn’t a huge departure from “White old guy trains promising young black athlete” (see ‘42‘, ‘Creed‘ etc.) it’s still heart-warming to see unfold. Stephen James gives a very understated performance as Owens, someone who’d rather lets his actions and talents speak for themselves and who, before the movie opens, has already dealt with racism and prejudice against him so he seems to take it in his stride (though, it’s still something that can get to him). The real surprise of ‘Race‘ is Jason Sudeikis who normally does a great job in comedies but here he shows up in a role that feels completely unlike him, yet he does nail it. It’s almost jarring at first to see a live-wire comedian play a straight-mentor but after a few minutes you get on his level and feel invested in the performance taking place in front of you.
The rest of the cast are strong but the supporting standouts are Jeremy Irons but also Carice van Houten as Leni Riefenstahl and Barnaby Metschurat as Joseph Goebbels. See in the mid-30s, Germany had just come out of an economic recession and they wanted to show the world how the Nazi party has rejuvenated the country and given the world some of its best athletes (White Skin with Blonde Hair and Blue Eyes, of course). To do this, Goebbels hired Riefenstahl to direct and produce the broadcasting of the Olympics with stage-of-the-art cameras in order to create Nazi propaganda. With that context, you can understand why Jesse Owens became such an iconic figure. Not only did he beat the Nazis are their own game, he literally did it in front of the world thanks to Riefenstahl’s cameras.
And yet, for many people, that still wasn’t enough. While I won’t go into spoilers, the very last scene in ‘Race‘ depicting how he was rewarded by his own country for bringing home Olympic Gold is…god, that was hard to watch.
But yeah, the performances; Carice van Houten is great as an almost reasonable Nazi who wants to make the best film possible and is a badass in such modest ways (she wears men’s clothing to feel more comfortable), but the supporting M.V.P. is Metschurat as possibly the greatest on-screen Goebbels in cinematic history. No, I’m not exaggerating here because the Goebbels in this film is an absolute piece of work but Metschurat is so memorable and so clearly embracing this deplorable character that he can’t help but be memorable. I believe that great villains are ones that you like to hate and I LOVED hating Goebbels in ‘Race‘.
If I could sum up the main problem with ‘Race‘ it’s that it feels like the version showing in theatres is an extended cut, or a first-cut that has yet to be fine-tuned. ‘Race‘ clocks in at 134 minutes which feels appropriate for a years-spanning biopic but it doesn’t feel very economic in its storytelling. ‘Race‘ feels a lot longer then it actually is and it feels like many scenes should have been trimmed for expediency. But even then, there are a few under-developed elements like just why Jesse decides to attend the Olympics despite the Nazi regime. What should be the most important decision in the movie feels like it’s not elaborated enough. The movie makes such a strong case for why he SHOULDN’T go in that he needs to set an example for other black athletes and figures and when Larry tells him that he should take the shot at the Gold Medal and that he doesn’t care about setting an example, Jesse replies saying “Well, you’re white! You don’t have to!”. It’s a powerful scene, but it almost works too well because what ultimately changes Jesse’s mind…isn’t well established. But ‘Race‘ still ultimately works because…well, it’s hard to go wrong with Jesse Owens’ story.
I was amazed when I saw the $5M budget because while I didn’t think this was a blockbuster, what the filmmakers accomplished with such a paltry amount of money is absolutely astounding. The movie spans years, takes place in multiple countries, is a period movie with appropriate clothing, hair and make-up, accurate props and vehicles, some big-name actors…seriously, how many people worked for free to make this movie? Yeah, the low-budget seams are apparent when visual effects get involved as the green-screen is obvious and CGI vehicles and boats stand out like a sore thumb but…$5M, blimey.
The ambition is faultless and despite the limited resources director Stephen Hopkins and cinematographer Peter Levy didn’t half-arse the film, particularly when the events move to Germany. We get a nearly 3-minute single-shot of Jesse Owens entering the Berlin Olympic stadium for the first time and while the cuts in the action and the green-screen are obvious…it’s a sequence that still commands respect towards the filmmakers for conceiving it. The music by Rachel Portman is pretty good as well even if the sound-mixing could use some work overall as some sequences are way too quiet and some are way too loud. Obviously ‘Race‘ does come across like a lower-budget effort, but the ambition and the fact that it does feel way bigger than its tiny $5M budget makes me respect the whole enterprise.
While I’m sure another Jesse Owens biopic will be made in a few years time to ultimately usurp this one, ‘Race‘ is still a very solid biopic. It doesn’t just do the bare minimum by only portraying this inspirational story but goes out of its way to flesh out the narrative by incorporating events and moments that didn’t even involve Jesse yet still help get across the important moral quandary surrounding America’s participation in the games in the first place. The relationship between Jesse and Larry feels legitimate, we have one of the best Goebbels ever put to film and the production values, while you can see the cracks in the armour, still look way beyond its meagre budget. It feels under-edited and the love story is limp but ‘Race‘ is a movie with conviction and…that’s a really clever movie title.
I give ‘Race‘ 3 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 1st Aug 16