With so many sports movies attempting to honor a magnificent life and also stay historically accurate, they tend to fail in one of those areas or flat out stink in both. That’s not the case with Race, a film that shows us the rise of Jesse Owens, an American sprinter whose athletic achievements and place in history where so woven together, it would have been a disservice to get any of it wrong.
Respecting The Time Period
They nail this crucial area from the beginning with how they framed the look and feel of Ohio. While some of the shots are clear CGI wizardry, which I’ll touch on shortly, the other moments like the store front close ups, Jesse visiting his wife hard at work hair-styling, or even the simple clothing choices help warm you to the era. Unfortunately, some scenes don’t immerse you as well as say Brooklyn did between it’s two towns in two separate countries. The film makes up for in other areas, such as many of the Ohio State University establishing shots, Berlin’s famous Tempelhof Airport, Los Angeles coliseum, or how other historical moments (Joe Louis losing to Max Schmeling) affected the film’s events. Sometimes I’ve seen plenty of biopics concentrate so much on the the character on screen that they forget how little moments like this reinforce the period they are portraying.
The film also took a lot of time to highlight the political backdrop of the 1936 Olympics so that when it came to head, we understood why. The back half of the film relies on that setup so much that had they just casually mentioned it instead of committing, we would have felt bamboozled. Especially if you’re not familiar with the story, you need this context or else the potential American boycott of the Olympic games doesn’t make. Owens’ struggle over whether to participate would also be cheapened without this context.
Stephan James and Jason Sudeikis rock the screen together playing Owens and Snyder respectively. Their chemistry is very natural and helps drive the bigger moments later in the film. They still suffer from having to spout off some lines too stuffed with motivational and achievement oriented language, but when those moments subside, we are able to clearly hear and enjoy a coach and player connecting. These are the pieces that stuck out in my mind and helped endear the film to me. I loved Sudeikis more than I expected and one of his best moments came in the defense of his athletes that doubled as a teaching moment. He intentionally let the football team get riled up (who were going to trample over or harass his team as they headed to the shared locker room) by not letting them pass and instead continued to talk to his team. He continued to ask his players to concentrate of him as the other team became more and more agitated. The visual changes to only show Owens’ and Snyder in focus and creates a great effect given his speech.
A Key Cinematic Choice
Speaking of great effects, while most of the track moments were okay, there’s an excellent shot and pacing decision with Owens’ walk into the arena in Germany. It reminded me so much of the great pacing decisions in Creed, where they stayed with the over shoulder camera position for much of those ring shots with Michael B. Jordan. Here, the forced perspective on Owens from his walk into the arena until he finished his first event of the Olympics was simply amazing. It served as a great window into his emotions as he entered into this massive stage, the roar of the crowd; Stephan James impressively held onto his timid expression that entire time.
As I stated above, there were a few early moments of CGI that were a bit too pronounced, but that kind of gets washed out by the other superb moments when they effectively enhanced the scene. The dialogue for the most part was solid, except the occasionally forced motivational one-liners squeezed in. I didn’t effectively buy into Jesse’s relationship with his wife. I think the time they spent there was adequate for the film. Unfortunately, it didn’t translate into good chemistry, or not like the relationship we see between Owens and Snyder. There’s also an odd place in the film where Jesse has a period of infidelity that while it may be accurate, it really threw off the flow of the film.
A Thoughtful Ending
The subject of Jesse Owens’ race is paramount through the entire production. He deals with unfair treatment by some members of his university. He’s conflicted about competing for an America that doesn’t represent him. And he’s equally torn going to compete in a country that’s doing the same or worse. The film encapsulates this in the final scene by showing us Owens still facing prejudice after his many achievements. At a banquet in his honor, he was still forced to take his wife and himself through the service entrance of the hotel, a practice typically reserved for Black people at that time.
The final scene of the movie was very fitting and while some will not like it, I appreciate the decision. It pumps the brakes on the high and feel good vibe moviegoers were about to leave on and delivers a sharpened message that you can’t ignore…..unless you got up long before this moment. Race delivers a respectful and solid piece of theater for one of America’s best athletes and manages to enjoyably get the history right too.
Race 7 out of 10
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