Race: Jogging, by Rudie Obias
Biopics can really get stale really fast. If the movie is about a historical figure then we, as the audience, know exactly how it’s going to play out. So making a biopic interesting and engaging has to go further than simply listing a person’s greatest hits in a Wikipedia-style article to boil down what made someone historical and important. The newest film Race, from director Stephen Hopkins, almost hits the mark with in something new and exciting, but it routinely stumbles to the finish line.
Race is a biopic about the great athlete Jesse Owens (Stephan James), the track and field star who won four Gold Medals during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Nazi Berlin, Germany. The film chronicles Owens’ life from his first day of college at Ohio State University to being treated as a second-class citizen at his own honorary gala after he gained worldwide acclaim and celebrity. The film also deals with the American Olympic committee led by Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) deciding whether or not to boycott the ’36 Games because it takes place with the fascist Nazi regime in charge and their treatment of the German Jewish population during its first half, before shifting (in a very bizarre turn) to the making of the documentary Olympia from director Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) in its second half.
In many respects, Race succeeds as a good old-fashioned underdog sports movie, with Owens’ coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) believing that he’s destined for greatness, but falls flat with dealing the sub-genre, of which, admittedly, I am not a fan. There’s a lot going in Race with a running time of 134 minutes, but the movie just spends so much time with the weight of Jesse Owens’ decision to go to Berlin for the Olympics, despite the NAACP urging him not to, in solidarity for all oppressed peoples around the world. See, the problem is we know that he ends up going to the Olympics, so watching the movie unfold as he’s struggling with the decision doesn’t really add much weight or stakes when he eventually ends up going to Berlin.
The more intimate moments with the supporting cast makes Race a real winner. Jason Sudeikis was born to play a coach in a sports movie, while David Kross as Owens’ German rival Carl “Luz” Long is quite touching and speaks to the power of camaraderie of athletes from all walks of life. Stephan James, too, is worth the price of admission. His Jesse Owens is charming, yet vulnerable and modest. He’s brash, yet level-headed. You’re just drawn to his presence on the big screen and the parts of Race that work can be attributed to his performance.
Simply put, Race could’ve been more streamlined and tight, instead of feeling bloated and slack. In this way, it feels more like a high budget TV movie, rather than a major motion picture. Hopkins tries to spruce it up a bit with clever and inventive transitions and title cards and admittedly the obligatory “what happened in real life after the movie” moments happened with some style and panache. But it’s just too little to fully inject Race with life. There’s just a lot going on in Race that doesn’t need to be in the movie. The subplots with Avery Brundage and Leni Riefenstahl are there to make the movie fuller, but instead they make the movie bogged down and unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate any movie that features director Leni Riefenstahl as a supporting character, but the movie doesn’t handle it as well as it should.
To Race‘s credit, it does end very strongly when Jesse Owens finally gets to the Olympics and winning four Gold Medals, but it’s a marathon to get there when it should’ve been a sprint.