Descriptors that defined Jesse Owens – like speedy, smooth or brave – are not words likely to be associated with Race, the new biopic from director Stephen Hopkins. The 10.3 seconds in which Owens (played by Stephan James) changed the world unfolds over 134 plodding minutes, completely devoid of tension. Race is a story about an incredible man simply “being incredible,” rather than the circumstances that forced him to drastically defy the odds.
In line with expectations for clichéd biopics, Race begins with extraneous expositional dialogue, with Jesse’s mother, Emma Owens (Michèle Lonsdale Smith) informing her son that he’s “the first boy of mine to go to college,” then reminding him of the “lump” she removed from his chest at 5 that left him with a scar. As co-written by Frankie & Alice screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, the screenplay feels stiff on a scene to scene basis, entering its worst stretches whenever the focus turns to members of the American Olympic Committee – elongated parts of the movie in which Owens is absent or instructed to remain silent while simplified versions of pre-WWII policies get debated. Why that decision was made, given that this is a Jesse Owens biopic, is beyond this reviewer.
Making matters worse is the significant presence of Saturday Night Live alum Jason Sudeikis as Owens’ coach Larry Snyder, giving some scenes the veneer of a Funny Or Die sketch gone awry. The dichotomy between James’ and Sudeikis’ acting styles is at its worst during a nearly wordless embrace between Owens and his coach, after the runner collects his fourth gold medal in a moment that unfavorably echoes the closing moments of South Park‘s sports parody episode, “Stanley’s Cup.”
Even the film’s depiction of Jesse Owens comes up short, wavering haphazardly between determined and deferential. If this portrayal of Owens feels ill-defined, though, it doesn’t really appear to be the fault of James, whose natural charm makes Race more tolerable. The blame lies mostly with the script, which simply lays the brunt of the storytelling burden on rigid dialogue delivered by one-dimensional characters. Everyone speaks in oddly explicit terms to one another, articulating the challenges of early 20th century prejudices with a 21st century sensibility. Beyond simply feeling anachronistic, everyone in Race appears to have been transplanted from the year 2016. It’s a fatal flaw the movie never overcomes.
The same dilemma plagues Sudeikis’ Snyder, who at one point speaks more casually of his separation from his wife than Don Draper after a couple of highballs. He and the vast majority of the film’s other Americans act far too aware, too racially sensitive – particularly since it wasn’t until Owens’ arrival in Berlin for the Olympics that he was permitted to board with his white counterparts. (Not shown in Race? Ohio State University denying Owens on-campus housing). The dangers facing Owens in Race feel like sterile threats, watered down from reality.
Director Stephen Hopkins (HBO’s The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and Showtime’s House of Lies) also struggles to communicate the story visually. To an extent, the brevity of track and field events limits the filmmaker. Owens’ greatest achievements all took under a minute to unfold; however, in a very long take where he follows Owens in the run up to his world record sprint – the film’s flashiest shot – Hopkins can’t convey how large the surroundings loom over Owens or the significance of the moment.
Hopkins’ film exhibits more control over its directorial flairs in an earlier sequence that relies on the sound mix. As Snyder instructs Owens on honing his focus while the OSU football team shouts racist epithets, the soundtrack bangs and peaks until Owens is able to obscure everything but his coach’s directions. It’s the most electric of Race‘s many talk-heavy scenes.
The film’s ending, more attuned to the racial challenges Owens faced throughout his life, lands with greater impact than any moment prior. Here, in its fleeting final scene, after the film’s epilogue runs through all the relevant commendable and condemnable white men who would gain power following the 1936 Olympics, Race is able to effectively illustrate the central hypocrisy within its story.
But it’s too little, too late. Race is neither entertaining nor illuminating. In an era where biopics from Love & Mercy to Straight Outta Compton have become increasingly daring, this one simply falls behind the pack.
Race fails to properly contextualize the achievements of Jesse Owens, instead imbuing its story with a weirdly modern, sterilized sensibility.