The story of Jesse Owens is one that was always ripe for adaptation. The son of a poor black family from Cleveland coming of age just as the Great Depression was setting in, Jesse (Stephan James) quickly gained national attention after becoming a track-and-field sensation while attending Ohio State University. Jesse was not just fast, but also smart, humble and driven to succeed. Under the guidance of his coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), Owens broke several national and world records before qualifying to participate in the Summer Olympics that were held in Nazi-occupied Germany. Owens’ decision to participate in the games was met with great scrutiny, especially from the members of the NAACP, but he still he forged ahead in hopes of overcoming both his competition and the constant racism he faced.
Race, written by Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel, tells all of this and plenty more in its 134-minute runtime. Viewers not only see Owens rise from obscurity to international stardom, but they are also given insight into his personal life and the problems that come with fame. Through it all, Owens is presented as being both incredibly kind and well-meaning in everything he does. Though the world tries its best to provoke action, Owens remains focused on his goal. For Jesse, running is the closest thing to true freedom he has ever known. His time on the track, be it for minutes or seconds, is the only time when he believes everyone is equal. Everyone starts in the same place and they end in the same place. The time between those two points is where men are made, dreams are achieved, hopes are dashed, and all the worries of the world melt away. For a few brief moments, Jesse Owens’ only concern is the next step he will take.
The troubles with the story arise when Owens is away from the track, which unfortunately makes up the bulk of the film. While racing is where everything eventually leads, aside from a few montages and a several key scenes near the end of the film there are very few training and/or competition sequences in the film. Instead, Race focuses on Owens’ personal journey and experiences as his name becomes increasingly known around the globe, including the problems that arise when someone becomes a celebrity. These twists and turns, while admirably executed, are not all that interesting. Worse, they’re incredibly tired ideas, and they do little to further our understanding of the time or man around which the story is built.
Stephen James’ turn as Jesse Owens is good despite the he doesn’t have much to do aside from looking either hopeful or heartbroken. While the journey of Owens is unquestionably the focus of the film, the character of Owens does not evolve much, if at all, throughout the film. He’s naturally fast, and we know from the beginning that he has a good heart. Problems arise and skills are refined, but overall he is the same man at the end of the story as he is at the beginning, except when the credits roll more people know his name. This isn’t to say Owens’ grind to the top is not interesting, as it most certainly is, but there is little to no emotional engagement in much of what unfolds on screen.
Jason Sudeikis, tackling a far more serious role than audiences are use to seeing from him, delivers an entrancing performance as coach Snyder. Of everyone on-screen, it’s Snyder who is the most conflicted at any given time, and Sudeikis portrays this inner-turmoil with talent we have not previously seen him display. Whether he’s pushing Owens to drown out the racism being hurled at him 24/7 or coming to terms with his alcohol dependency, Sudeikis has a wealth of dramatic material to work with and he handles it with grace that further proves he has true staying power in this ever-tumultuous industry.
Women are few and far between in Race, but Shanice Banton does have a memorable turn as Owens’ eventual wife, Ruth Solomon. Though kept at the edges of the narrative for the majority of the film, Banton is given just enough screen time to showcase joy, sorrow, anger and the strange way love can overcome even the most brutal heartache. She is Jesse’s rock, though he doesn’t always treat her with the respect she deserves, and in the end it is Ruth, as well as the daughter they share, that Jesse aims to make proud.
What baffles the mind the most about Race is why director Stephen Hopkins, best known for Lost In Space and The Ghost And The Darkness, would choose to tackle such a project. Hopkins has a long history of making memorable films in the world of action, as well as the world of comedy, but here he displays none of the skills that have helped him remain a notable filmmaker for over two decades. Race is his least interesting film to date, and it’s executed so lazily that it’s next to impossible to imagine Hopkins reviewing dailies during production and feeling as if he truly captured the essence of Jesse Owens as man or legend. I have no doubt he will make more films in the future, and I sincerely hope they are better than this, but Race will now and forever be a low point for a career that has almost always kept audiences on the edge of their seats.
Race is the vanilla ice cream of biopics. Though it is true to its source material and littered with fine performances from a wide range of talent the story of Jesse Owens comes across as more of a snore than an early pivotal moment for equality and the war against discrimination. Scenes come and go, races included, without inducing as much as a rise in the viewer’s pulse. I am confident everyone involved in this film will go on to do bigger and better things in the future, but why this film missed the mark so much may very well remain a mystery for years to come. The elements needed for an engaging and inspiring story are all present, but nothing ever comes together, and that makes Race an incredibly frustrating—not to mention overly long—affair that will undoubtedly be forgotten in no time at all.