Starring: Stephan James, Jason Sudekis, Eli Goree, William Hurt, Jeremy Irons, Amanda Crew
Directed By: Stephen Hopkins
Plot: A biopic that tells the true story of Jesse Owens (James), and how he started as a young man trying to get an education at Ohio State by running track for the college, to the Olympics, where he has a shot to stick it to Hitler and his white supremacy bullshit. Of course, you already know the ending, that’s why there’s a movie about Jesse Owens.
What Works: This film follows the same formula laid out by 42 a few years back. Historic biopic about a black athlete overcoming racism. I actually think Race is the better film, having learned how to tighten up the mistakes made by 42. Much like 42, the film is carried by its lead, this time by Stephan James, who does an extraordinary job as Jesse Owens. It ends up that he looks nothing like Jesse Owens, but who cares. He did a great job. Also doing some really good work is Jason Sudekis, trying his hand at a dramatic role. He shows a lot of promise here, playing the coach that missed his shot, and refuses to let Jesse miss his. The film also looks good, capturing Jesse’s races really well.
What Doesn’t Work: It’s beginning to be a little paint-by-numbers for me. The whole biopic mold, especially one that is “racially charged”. The racism is there, it just is thrown around and never really the focus. It just gets brought up occasionally, but there isn’t a real supporting character who speaks for the racists. Racism is just used by extras and ensemble members. It just never feels important enough to the film to actually be brought into a real character. Unless you count the nazi’s, I suppose. The head nazi for this film has decided to not observe facial expressions, that’s how you know he’s hardcore. His acting choice, to strike fear, is to just stare blankly at his conversational opponents. It’s the kind of performance that rarely works, and it doesn’t work here. For me, it made him just look like a douchebag, instead of “the man”. I also wish the film had explored some side characters a bit more. Throughout the film, Jesse has a best friend named Dave (Goree), who is a real person. Dave Albritton ends up winning a Silver medal in the High Jump the same year, and I would have appreciated even a brief nod to that, considering the time invested already in his character. Instead, he’s marginalized.
Final Word; An acceptable biopic about Jesse Owens. It’s a pretty good film, even though it feels “been there done that”, and streamlines racism. Gone are the days where a supporting character is given a platform to be racist, only to learn over the course of a film that his racism is misplaced. I’d still say come for the performance by Stephan James, who hopefully will use Race to launch him into many more roles in the future.
Final Grade: B