Race is an ordinary look at an extraordinary man. To be more specific, it’s a generic, perfunctory, by-the-numbers, big screen TV-movie-of-the-week depicting the life of Olympic runner Jesse Owens, a man who would become the greatest track and field athlete in U.S. history while running his mightiest in Nazi Germany during the 1936 ceremonies. Despite fine attention to period details and never-less-than-commendable performances all-around — particularly a star-worthy turn from Degrassi: The Next Generation’s Stephan James — director Stephen Hopkins comes at this material with the exact sort of workmanship that previously failed him at the helm of Nightmare of Elm Street and Predator sequels. It’s a bronze-worthy effort for a man whose life and achievements most definitely deserved the gold treatment.
Playing true to the traditions of sports movie past, Hopkins — alongside screenwriters Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse (Frankie & Alice) — introduce us to Owens (James) through his very humble upbringing. He’s a good-hearted, loyal-breed boy from Ohio, hoping to make his family proud and do right to his young daughter Gloria (Yvanna-Rose Leblanc) and her mother, loyal hairdresser Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton, also best known from Degrassi: TNG). Under a full ride, Owens sprints towards The Ohio State University, where he’s quickly introduced to the college’s flailing coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), a former athlete-turned-washed-up drunk praying for an upswing — personally and professionally.
With amazing athletic potential, Snyder certainly sees the potential laid idle in his newfound star, and together they work more than medals and recognition. They aim for pure, honest-to-goodness greatness. Of course, as a black man in the ‘30s, Jesse isn’t necessarily treated hostility by his peers. But Larry urges Jesse to tune them all out. Your past, the color of your skin, what you’ve been through. It doesn’t matter. You and the field; that’s what really matters. And such noise-channeling is more than just sound advice. It’s what takes him to the next level — including working his way towards a heavily segregated Germany for the ultimate prizes.
But records don’t mean much of anything, we’re told by Larry, because there’s always going to be someone ready to take yours away in a second. What matters most is character, and defining your sense of personality against the odds. And in that sense, Owens succeeded beautifully while the movie centered around him fails mightily. Not to say Race comes with even the slightest of malicious intents. Quite the opposite, in fact. Hopkins comes at this material with all the respect, admiration and diligence you’d expect and should get. It’s most certainly earnest, and there’s a squeaky-clean goodness and a glistening nostalgic shine accomplished by asserted, well-mounted cinematography by Peter Levy, Hopkins’ trusted DP, certainly provides a novel-looking portrait of the man.
But the story’s morals and predictable beats come with the exact same over-saturation you expect from such an indifferent picture. Everything is an obstacle, that much is made certain. And yes, we’re supposed to be made aware that the title comes with more-than-one meaning. But like all-too-many of these films, Race approaches its heavy themes with the sort of blunt, obvious tone you come to expect from such mediocre efforts. There’s little here to differentiate Hopkins’ movie from the standard based-on-a-true-story drama — sports or otherwise — you’d see from Disney nearly every year — even though the Mouse House had no involvement with this film. And much like 42 from a few years back, Race plays itself far too safe and becomes a little too easily digestible — to the point where it dulls anything that could be slightly interesting about the final product.
Often, the most interesting aspects of Race take place away from the field. No, I’m not talking about the pep speeches from Snyder, or even Owens’ budding on-off romance with Ruth. But rather the politics at stake with America participating with the rest of the war in the Olympics throughout a war-stricken Germany. Guided through noble-as-ever performances by Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage, building tycoon and eventual president of the International Olympic Committee, and William Hurt as Jeremiah Mahoney, president of the Amateur Athletic Union who fought to boycott the Olympics altogether that year, it’s here where the fundamental idea of genuine sportsmanship even in the face of adverse evil plays at a fascinatingly pulsating punch around Owens’ actions. They successfully add the weight to his actions, and give us more motivation to see him triumph as he eventually will, but also add stakes never especially founded in these often heavy-handed dramas.
Aided through occasional looks from the other side from filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Game of Thrones’ Carice van Houten), a former Olympian-turned-groundbreaking filmmaker who’d be known for making the most prolific propaganda film of all-time, The Triumph of the Will, it’s in these choice moments when Race lets us look at the full picture and builds upon the nature of what Owens’ victories means not only as a credit to his personality, background and race, but as a victory for the nation and the world he lives in. It’s a shame most of this moral intrigue gets watered down in the ways it does, but it’s interesting nevertheless to see how such world-building adds to the film’s ever-pumping pulse. It’s a small win in the end, most certainly, but one needed to make the film stand out even in the slightest.
Unfortunately, that’s where Race’s noteworthiness and goodwill ends. Despite an exceptional performance from James, and another admirable-as-hell one from Sudeikis too — with this, Tumbledown, his stint on The Last Man on Earth and last year’s Sleeping with Other People, the SNL alum is most certainly proving himself as a dramatic actor and sharp-shooting lead actor these days — Hopkins’ film is yet another incredibly-safe, entirely dull underdog sports melodrama to add to the endless canon. And it shouldn’t be. This should be an exceptional film, much like Owens was an exceptional human being, and that it has the steps to go beyond such middlebrow ambitions, but decides not to, is more than a shame: it’s a letdown to both the genre and the potential always laid inside it. And if there’s one thing Owens wasn’t, it was a letdown.