Race. Pretty funny how that one word can completely describe an entire film, in both understandings of the word. The person who thought of it must have gotten some serious high fives from around the office. No, but seriously, the last couple of years we have gotten a lot of biopics of influential historical characters, and especially now that the whole world is going through some race issues, it seemed to be the good time to release a film about Jesse Owens: the legendary athlete. Played by fairly newcomer Stephan James, we follow Owens’ story as he heads to college and from that moment on trains with athlete gone alcoholic Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) to become one of the greatest track and field athletes in the world. Set in the swinging thirties, Owens must not only battle for a place among the best, he also has to battle against racial prejudices from his fellow students, fellow athletes and eventually against the will of the most discriminating bunch of them all: Nazi Germany.
Nothing quite wakes you up about how social situations from the past were like the bluntless of racial slurs. Race has a point that has to be made, so prepare for a lot of those direct confrontations. People saying “did that n***er just touch me?” on the buses, Owens and his friends being shunned away from the dressing rooms by the all-white football team, countless of references to monkeys… unfortunately it captures the essence of the thirties mentality. Some of the troubles that Owens has to face in the film feel a little too set up and convenient for the story, but given the fact that I am a white teenage girl I have very little to say about that area. Although we cannot deny the fact that the things Owens and his peers had to go through are horrible, in Race it is never really taken too far over the edge. If anything, it even seems like the makers chose to stop at quite the distance in front of the edge. There are hardly any gut wrenching or mind blowing scenes in the film, at most you’ll think “ah man, that’s pretty horrible.” Even in the last part of the film at the 1936 Olympics you’d think that the confrontation with Nazi Germany and its treatment of anyone that wasn’t blonde and blue eyed would be quite difficult to watch. Even there we never really get to the point of ultimate emotional involvement, not even when coach Snyder ends up lost in a dodgy alley in Berlin and half witnesses some people being dragged away by soldiers. It’s not a necessarily a bad thing that we don’t feel ugly feelings throughout the film, it can be a plus if you want to just watch a lighter film, but given the topics Race addresses that seems a little unlikely. It’s not very obvious whether the makers wanted to focus on Owens’ athletic career or social structures. It does both, but neither too detailed to really make it obvious.
Owens’ portrayal by Stephen James is quite great, not to mention his athletic talents are quite visible on screen, even for a sports noob like me. His easygoing and neutral good personality come across very well so no matter what happens, you will find yourself rooting for the man. Jason Sudeikis plays his first dramatic role in Race, but it seems Snyder is not very different from all the other things he’s played (no, not even from David Clarke in We’re the Millers). He doesn’t do all too bad, this role certainly fits him, but we’ll need a bit more time to adjust to his genre change. All of the supporting actors are quite great, including Jeremy Irons and Carice van Houten, and the aesthetic of the thirties is very visible throughout, which gives it that extra little charm (minus the ruthless racism, of course). Plus, big bonus, even though the races were all about 80 years ago so there shouldn’t be a spoiler alert, the races and competitions Owens participates in still make you feel very pumped, which in true feel good fashion makes you almost forget he was a medalist winner.
So yes, Race has plenty of race and also plenty of race. Both versions are shown quite lightly and although they have obviously tried, neither really hit the emotional mark. There are plenty of almost feel good moments to be found, which makes Race an entertaining watch, even though ‘feel good’ might not really be the emotion the makers were going for. Basically if you want to feel historically involved but not with too much drama, Race is a great film for you. And don’t we all just feel like that sometimes.