The Hippo


May 25, 2020









Race (PG-13)
Film reviews by Amy Diaz

By Amy Diaz

 Jesse Owens heads to the 1936 Olympics in Race, a Jesse Owens biopic that is about all sorts of stuff and also, incidentally, Jesse Owens.

Jesse Owens (Stephan James) is a super-fast runner but he’s also a man with a daughter and fiancée, Ruth (Shanice Banton), to support as well as parents whom he helps out financially. And then there’s the matter of the upcoming 1936 Olympics, which he dearly hopes to participate in. When he heads to Ohio State University, he has no time for parties and hook-ups. His coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), harangues him to do nothing but train for upcoming track and field events. But Owens also has to get a part-time job, which, with classes and training leaves him little time for frivolous things like sleep. 
Meanwhile, in New York, the American Olympic committee is trying to decide whether it will indeed go to the 1936 Olympics, which are in Berlin. U.S. Olympic official Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) is tasked with going to Germany to basically tell the Nazis to behave, publicly at least, and not to get hinky about the ethnicity of participating athletes, so that the U.S. can justify its presence there. Back home, Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) serves as the leading voice of those who want to boycott games they think will legitimize and serve as propaganda for the Nazis. During his trip to Germany, Avery Brundage meets with Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) and Leni Riefenstahl (Carice Van Houten, for whom the night is dark and full of terrors), who is making a movie about the Olympics. 
So, here’s some stuff this movie is about:
• Larry Snyder and his need to coach some winning athletes after a few years of slump.
• Larry Snyder and the Olympics he almost but didn’t quite make it to in 1924.
• Larry Snyder and his crumbling personal life.
• Avery Brundage and his moral flexibility when it comes to the Nazis.
• The nascent American objections to the Nazis and their anti-Semitic and generally racist policies and doctrines. 
• The role of sport in politics.
• The power struggle between Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl.
• The 1936 Olympics and the good (Owens’ many wins) and bad (the U.S. sidelines its two Jewish athletes) things that happen there.
• The disquieting things Larry Snyder sees when he turns down the wrong street in Berlin.
• The racist meathead behavior of Ohio State University’s football team.
And, then also, we get the Jesse Owens part of this Jesse Owens movie wherein he deals with some racism and has some romantic woes and has an assortment of difficulties on his road to the Olympics.
That is a lot of subjects for a movie to be about. And an unnecessary number of those things are not about Jesse Owens. Or, if you want to take the position that this movie isn’t really an Owens biopic and is about the 1936 Olympics, a lot of those things aren’t about the Olympics. Also, for a movie this awkwardly padded, I don’t understand while the final runtime tops two hours. And, finally, if the movie-makers’ real desire was to put out a film called Avery Brundage Is a Massive Jerk they probably should have just made that movie. 
Race does have a nice confluence of things to work with — namely, the political environment of the 1936 Olympics, racial politics in 1930s America and the ambitions and talents of Jesse Owens, a masterful athlete. But it piles on so much additional stuff that whatever emotional impact those core story points could have had gets lost in the sea of, for example, whatever problem Goebbels has with Riefenstahl or the implication that Brundage basically took a bribe from the Nazis. Or the personal problems of the, to put it bluntly, white coach who works with Owens. Sudeikis generally makes Snyder a likable character. But why do we need to get all tangled up in his life in this story about Owens? This movie very much reminded me of 42, the Jackie Robinson movie that spent a lot of time telling the stories of people not Jackie Robinson. It appears that Owens had an interesting and eventful life both before and after the Olympics. Why drag that down with a bunch of storytelling junk?
As with 42, Race does have interesting moments. At one point, Owens and Dave Albritton (Eli Goree), another African-American track athlete, arrive at the Berlin Olympics and look for the “colored dorms.” Told that there aren’t segregated dorms and all the athletes are staying in one place, the men are rather shocked. It’s a nice scene that gets to the weirdness of the moment: that they are in a maniacally racist country but are being treated with an equality they wouldn’t get at home. The experience of this Olympics for Owens, with all its contradictions, is way more interesting and would make for a far sleeker bit of storytelling than the hash of, like, every piece of information the movie could find about 1936 Berlin. Stephan James is a perfectly appealing Owens but he is so frequently cut off by the movie that we have a hard time really getting to know the character he’s creating. C
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language. Directed by Stephen Hopkins with a screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, Race is two hours and 14 minutes long and distributed by Focus Features.

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