Shamefully, I really didn’t know a lot about Jessie Owens as a historical figure prior to watching this movie. So maybe I will do some research later on the person? That being said, Race is yet another historical movie centered around…well.. race. And while I would love to say that, like other films that fall into this type of genre, I was moved by the story and learned a lot, I just can’t… it would be a lie. While the title of this film would suggest a very racially charged film (as well as one with actual running), it feels as though the writers of the story decided to leave that part out during huge spans of time in this film. Now, that isn’t a bad thing, in fact I liked this film a lot. It was incredibly entertaining and well done! The races felt gritty and realistic and I was in awe over the physical feats that Owens was able to accomplish. So while I feel like this movie fails as being a standout for racial commentary, it stands out very much as a sports film.
Young Jesse Owens (Stephan James) becomes a track and field sensation while attending the Ohio State University in the early 1930s. With guidance from coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), Owens gains national recognition for breaking numerous records. After heated debates, the United States decides not to boycott the Olympics in Nazi Germany. Overcoming racism at home and abroad, Owens seizes the opportunity to show Berlin and then the world that he’s the fastest man alive.
This film was extremely well cast. Stephan James plays Jessie Owens perfectly! Not only does he physically look the part, he plays a charming enough person to keep you on his side even after committing an unsavory act. And, what is even more impressive, is that his version of the character grows as a person nearly as fast as he can run. Historical movies tend to make the mistake with their lead characters as portraying them as perfect and altruistic from birth. They were their best selves even on their worst days, but Jessie Owens in this film, starts out as a meek and quiet person when he first walks into the halls of Ohio State, but by the end of the movie he is outspoken, confident and will fight for what he wants. I like seeing character growth in films and it was a welcome surprises considering the first words you hear in the trailer (from Jason Sudeikis) are “You’re a natural, I don’t like naturals!” He learns from his mistakes as well as the mistakes of those around him and he becomes a better person as his character is tested.
One thing that is clear from this movie is that Jason Sudeikis NEEDS to do more dramatic roles. He played a supporting character so well in this film! Like… If they made an independent movie just about his character… I would watch it in a heartbeat. What I like most about his character is that they gave him some depth. He is a bit bitter in his old age for a few reasons. One, his love of racing has caused him to get a divorce. He also made a major mistake when he was in his prime that caused him to miss his shot at the Olympics. Lastly, Jessie Owens represents a threat to him, not because of his racial issues, but because he is better than him. These three issues conflict with his job as coach but he still manages to earn the respect and admiration of Jessie even when Sudeikis’s character acts negatively towards him. It was a sort of father/son relationship that worked extremely well in the movie and both actors had stellar on-screen chemistry.
This movie, however, is not without its flaws. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this movie lacks heart, I would argue that it lacks the conviction to tug at the heart. I think that is partly due to the fact that it feels as though this movie evolved a bit over time. Like the writers of the screenplay had a specific goal to bring racism to the forefront in this film, but then chose to have more fun with the running-aspect of the film as well as Owen’s relationship with his coach. The name suggests that racial issues will come up, but I feel like said issues didn’t really conflict enough in the story to make you feel like they mattered all that much. The fact of the matter is, running opened up a lot of doors to Owens, so a lot of the ‘race’ issues that might have come up in the film were squashed due to his own success. That is just my feeling anyways…. It just feels like this movie, to really push at the heart, needed to really land harder on racial issues of the time– instead, we get a film that WANTS to be about racial issues but feels more like a ‘feel good’-sports flick only.
And again, I do not think that this is necessarily a bad thing… it was confusing at best. In fact, as a sports film, this movie really does shine. Not only do the action sequences looks amazing, but Stephan really looked like someone running as if he had lightning in his shoes. Additionally, there are some really emotionally charged athletic moments in this film that really make this movie worth watching. One in particular is when Jesse is competing in the long jump against Carl Ludwig Long (Luz). Jesse is having trouble with the jump due to nerves, so his jumps aren’t counting. To ensure that he beats Jesse at his best, Luz lends him a hand by laying down a marker for Jesse to jump by. And then after Owens beats Luz, Luz parades him around hand in hand together around the arena. This, to me, is a true show of sportsmanship and was one of the best scenes of the entire film. But there are more! Just go see the movie and watch. This film really does pull through as a solid sports film and should be thought of as such.
Really the only thing going against this film, other than not hitting on the racial points hard enough, is that it played very much like a “made-for-TV”- movie rather than a high-end cinematic experience. It is one of those films that you would have essentially the same experience at home watching it on your HDTV as you would at the theater. But, that being said, I thoroughly enjoyed this film and am impressed from an acting standpoint. Stephan and Sudeikis had tons of on-screen chemistry and the dialogue between the two characters felt inspired. So go see this film, or wait to see it at home, either way you will enjoy it!
Here is my video review of Race: