RACE (Canada | Germany/PG/134mins)
Stephen Hopkins. Starring Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Carice Van Houten, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt.
THE PLOT: While attending Ohio State University, a young Jesse Owens (Stephan James) shows a talent for track and field sports. Under the training of Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), Owens blossoms, becoming one of the greatest athletes of all times, and going on to compete in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the Olympics overseen by Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) and Hitler’s Nazi regime.
THE VERDICT: The story of Jesse Owens and how, as an African American man, he came to compete in the notoriously racially divided Olympics in Berlin is a fascinating one, but in trying to tell too much, director Stephen Hopkins loses the main focus of the story.
Stephan James does well enough in the lead role as Jesse Owens, making him tenacious and cheeky, but also respectful and engaged. There are times when James struggles to make the film work as well as it could, but this seems to be largely down to the screenplay, rather than any fault of James’ own. Jason Sudeikis does well in a rare dramatic role; Larry Snyder is a driven man who is determined to get the best from James, and makes the character engaging to watch on screen. The rest of the cast features Carice Van Houten and Jeremy Irons – who both struggle with strange accents – as well as William Hurt and David Kross.
Screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse seem to have decided to tell the entire story of Owens’ college life, right up until the time he decides to compete for the Olympics. This is fine in theory, but with the story of young love leading to a child outside of marriage is skimmed over, as is the lead up to Owens setting three new records at a track and field meet within the space of 45 minutes. When we actually get to the Olympics, there are three different storylines going on; how the US came to compete in the controversial Games, Leni Riefenstahl (Van Houten) famously filming the Games, as well as Owens’ successes and famous rapport with German athlete Carl ‘Luz’ Long. Each of these stories is an interesting one, but in trying to tell all three means that the film feels fragmented and none of the storylines is given the focus it deserves. As well as this, the title of the film – ‘Race’ – is just a little too on the nose.
Director Stephen Hopkins is best known for his work on TV – ‘House of Lies’ and ’24’ to name but two – and this inexperience in films is obvious in the film. There is enough material here to make a strong TV series, but in trying to tell this in 134 minutes, the strength of the tale is diminished. The pacing is strange, with large portions of the film spent away from Owens, so the film feels drawn out and flabby in places. The performances are strong for the most part, with many of the problems with the film coming from a split focus, rather than weakness on the actors’ part.
In all, ‘Race’ is a film that tells a powerful story… In fact, three powerful stories, and it is this split that weakens the film from being a strong look back at history and one of the greatest athletes to come up through the college sports system at a time when African American segregation was still rampant in the US, to trying to tell too much. In the end, ‘Race’ tells too much of everything, and not enough of Jesse Owens and his skill as a sportsman.
Review by Brogen Hayes

Review by Brogen Hayes
3.0Does too much
  • filmbuff2011

    Race is a loaded title for a film about Jesse Owens, the African-American athlete who won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, much to the dismay of the Nazi regime who sought to use the event as a piece of powerful, orchestrated propaganda. But there’s a truth about it which makes its earnest plea for tolerance a commendable one.

    Cleveland, 1933. Jesse Owens (Stephan James) decides to leave home and find his way in the world. He wants to be an Olympic runner, the fastest there is in America. He approaches tough-but-fair famed coach Larry (Jason Sudeikis), who takes him under his wing. They train together, pushing Jesse to new heights as he outstrips all his competitors on the track. This is all building up to one thing: the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, for which the American Olympic committee has concerns. Board member Avery (Jeremy Irons) wants full inclusion, including Jewish members of the team. His colleague Jeremiah (William Hurt) thinks it would be wrong for America to take part, given the persecution of Jews and other ‘undesirables’ in then pre-war Germany. After some haggling with Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), Avery wins out and Jesse and Larry head to Berlin. Watched over by the cinematic gaze of director Leni Riefenstahl (Carice Van Houten), the whole event is recorded. Jesse comes to question the political situation in Germany though, as the ideologies of the two countries clash…

    Better known as a TV director on the likes of 24, Stephen Hopkins’ first feature film in 9 years is a true life story that is quietly powerful in its own right. Race is a film that has many ideas floating around, which Hopkins deftly plucks from the air and then drills home his point with precision. It’s a story of racism on two continents, competing and conflicting interests, the unchecked power and the glory of the Nazis and the level playing field of sportsmanship, where the politics fades away to just having young men running for gold. This is emphasised later on in the film, when Jesse competes against the German and European champion Luz (David Kross). A moment of sportsmanship and mutual recognition is allowed.

    Try as he may though, Hopkins’ is unable to completely separate these Olympics and Jesse’s hopes from the political situation in Germany at the time. There are some background shenanigans going on, which are alluded to but never fully fleshed out (Adolf Hitler appears but is little more than an extra). Also, the role of the (in)famous Riefenstahl as Der Fuhrer’s favourite filmmaker feels undercooked, despite sterling work from Van Houten. Reducing her down to little more than a translator / mediator feels like a disservice to this much-debated woman whose legacy is that she documented the rise of the Nazis.

    However, there’s still much to enjoy in Race. Viewed from a modern perspective, it has all the elements of an underdog story, though Jesse isn’t exactly an underdog. He’s more of an outsider looking in. James gives a good, honest performance throughout. Sudeikis, usually cast in silly comedies, makes a good case for a dramatic actor to watch too. Hopkins stages the Olympic races with visual flair, as the camera zooms around the enormous Olympics stadium before settling back on Jesse’s face as he realises what he’s got himself involved with. It’s entertaining and thought-provoking by turns, with an ending that rams home the point that there may not have been much difference between the two countries at this time. You need not race to the cinema to see Race, but it’s certainly worth the walk into a very different and troubled time. ***