With a name whose double meaning evokes the thrill of a sport and many centuries of oppression, Steve Hopkins newest film “Race” might have fallen short of its title’s effect.
Set in the United States during a time of segregation, “Race” chronicles the life of track phenomenon Jesse Owens. We get to see his birthplace of Alabama, and Ohio, where he grew up; his experience at the Ohio State University, where he emerged as a track-and-field sensation; and his long-term relationship with childhood sweetheart Minnie “Ruth” Solomon. What it doesn’t offer much of, however, is any real insight into what drove him to become the fastest man in the world. Writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse never once hit us with the reality of the horrors experienced by blacks in America.
The script wastes little time in hustling Owens off to college, where he meets the school’s hard-drinking, slightly down-on-his-luck track-and-field coach Larry Snyder (a surprisingly good Jason Sudeikis). In spite of the obvious racism bubbling up on the sidelines, Shrapnel and Waterhouse completely bypass the issue, making it seem as if there are no issues within the integrated track team, and Snyder and Owens form an easy brotherly bond. I found myself wondering: if they were just going to avoid the racial tensions within the America Owens experienced, then what was the point of this film?
Owens’ story is an inspiring epic of record-breaking athleticism during a time of racism and oppression. Owens (played by Stephan James from “Selma”) chose to defy a boycott-favoring consensus that included the NAACP in order to live his dream of Olympic glory; yet when he returned with four gold medals, his heroics were no match for the racist status quo. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wouldn’t congratulate nor meet with him, and Owens couldn’t use the front door of the Waldorf-Astoria to attend a dinner held in his honor.
To give credit where credit is due, “Race” does indeed cover these events in Owen’s life. But this is an easily distracted movie. For example, there’s an interminable subplot involving Owens’ affair with a woman who was not his high school sweetheart Solomon (Shanice Banton). It goes nowhere except to the land of cliché, serving as a means to create conflict in Owens’ relationship. More time is spent on sub characters’ interactions with people than on Owens bonding with his teammates or training. Despite an admirable attempt by Banton and James to bring a sense of romance to their scenes — in addition to James’ enjoyable interactions with Snyder — it often feels as if Owens is simply shown to win the races that made him famous.
Though I may have my own opinions about this film, I think that everyone should go and see it. There may be several weak spots in the film, but Hopkins’ skill behind the camera makes for an enjoyable viewing, and if you leave the theater feeling that my opinion is disagreeable, I promise not to judge.