Hot Take: A biopic about Jesse Owens shouldn’t move this slow.
There were plenty of fascinating tales throughout the life of Jesse Owens, the track athlete who battled bigotry while becoming an Olympic great. There were plenty of fascinating tales on the periphery of Owens’ life as he came to prominence during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and a time in the United States where blacks were still not recognized as equals. Unfortunately, Race feels compelled to try and tell them all in 2 hours and 14 minutes. Even more disappointing is the film’s inability to pick something to actually sink it’s teeth into, thus creating a glossy version of a darker story and focusing on Owens’ athletic accomplishments while glancing at the social issues surrounding him.
If Race does one thing right, it details Owens’ highly successful track career and eventual Olympic domination during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Owens was a physically gifted man who exploded in the world of track & field culminating in his historic performance in the ’36 games. Race chronicles the highlights of his success at Ohio State University and eventually the Olympics. While doing so, Race takes longer peeks at the events surrounding Owens at the time and glimpses of Owens, the man. In an attempt to add grit, these sidebars never get fully explored actually create the opposite effect and make the film feel like it lacks bite.
Of course, there are some obvious questionable moments in the film where one might easily question the authenticity of Race, as well. It’s accepted with fair certainty that during the ’36 Olympics shoemaker Adi Dassler (founder of Adidas) found a way to get shoes to Jesse Owens to wear during his amazing gold medal run. Race depicts this aspect of the tale with a twist involving his coach. While searching Germany for the shoe factory, Owens’ coaching unwittingly happens upon some German soldiers rounding up Jews to be taken off to concentration camps. While there are a few different versions of how Dassler managed to get his shoes on Owens’ feet, none support this version.
Race is not without merit — Stephan James is excellent as Owens, the scenes featuring his athletic feats are well shot and there’s plenty of subtext to chew on — but it’s too long and too unfocused to be better than so-so. Actually, the film could be more criticized for having too many focuses as occasionally, the movie pushes Owens into a supporting role whenever the movie isn’t about athletic achievement.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- Stephan James
James, as Owens, is convincing both as an athlete and the man himself. Often, sports biopics struggle to find an actor who can both act and appear competent as an athlete. Fortunately, James is able to pull off both.
- Barnaby Metschurat
Metschurat plays Joseph Goebbels and delivers a menacing performance as Hitler’s right hand man behind the ’36 Olympic games.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- Too Much
In retrospect, the most riveting aspect of the film is when Owens finally arrives in Berlin for the Olympics and the retelling of his feats. Unfortunately, by the time you reach this point, you might be exhausted due to how long it takes to actually get there.
- Too Little
Due to the focus on his athletic achievements, the racial subplots of the film are acknowledge but never really explored. The choice for a more saccharin sweet telling with the occasional sour note rather than a more even telling avoids the darker side of Owens’ story. It might make for a more “feel good” movie but definitely not a better film.