Imagine that Stephen Hopkins’ film Race was an actual race (obviously ignoring the two-prong nature of its title for one second). It stumbles out of the gate despite being quite elegantly shot, yet regardless of this highlight, the film feels like a TV movie far too often, and this just does not cut it.
This is no fault of Stephan James, who certainly looks the part of a young Jesse Owens. Race, thankfully, does not try to do anything too complicated like place James in old man make-up and make him seem much more aged.
The film, though, stumbles out of the gate because it tries to tell far too many stories at once: the saga of a young Owens first entering The Ohio State University at a time when being a young black athlete certainly was not very acceptable. Race also tries to tell the story of Owens’ coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) and his struggles with both alcohol and his wife (Amanda Crew). Sudeikis gives it a valiant try, but the film veers on afterschool special territory with the scenes between Snyder and anybody else other than Owens (due to the easy rapport between James and Sudeikis).
The most difficult story for Race to tell is that of the American response to the Nazis. The film somehow sees William Hurt reduced to a role slightly bigger than a cameo, and then as the American representative for the Olympics, and the unusual casting of Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundrage betrays the moral of the film. When a movie manages to misuse Jeremy Irons, well that’s something more than a stumble.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the film’s treatment of Leni Riefenstahl as a woman just trying to make it as a filmmaker, although it is a joy to see Games of Thrones actress Carice Van Houten return to the film screen (and certainly she has explored this territory before and more interestingly in Paul Verhoven’s Black Book).
The scenes in Germany are very problematic and although the action taking place on the track is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film, that which takes place off it could have been handled a lot more delicately, and comes off as cartoonish and often times undercut the true story at hand, Owens and Snyder and how they influenced each other to achieve greatness. Another interesting factor would have been how the struggle of the African-American athlete continues to this day, and although the film occasionally hints at being timeless, it relies on being maudlin far too much.
One would have preferred to see that Race had taken one track and stuck to it.