Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 134 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. This biopic of Jesse Owens includes some cursing, multiple uses of the n-word, some crass language and jokes about sex, a variety of demeaning and insulting language toward black people and Jews; some kissing, shirtless men, implied sexual behavior, flirtatious dancing, relationship infidelity, and teenagers having a baby before marriage; and all of the racism and oppression occurring in the U.S. and Germany before the civil rights movement and World War II, respectively, including scenes of white people verbally abusing black people and Germans rounding up and sending away Jewish families.
‘Race’ attempts to tell two stories: about the life of Olympics track and field star Jesse Owens and the relationship between the United States and Germany before World War II. Neither story receives the attention it deserves.
By Roxana Hadadi
“Race” makes its intentions very clear. This biopic of Jesse Owens, track and field star who made history with his four gold medal wins at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, is going to be inspirational when it comes to Owens’s life, even if that means turning him into a bland, personality-lacking figure. And “Race” is also going to be derogatory when it comes to Germany’s political climate, because of course it should be, but that subplot is treated like filler here. “Race” is two movies that don’t really work together as one because neither feels sufficient.
Who was Jesse Owens? He was an international track and field star who wasn’t offered a college scholarship because he was black. He won gold medals at the Olympics and had to ride the service elevator to his own awards dinner. He was never acknowledged by the U.S. president at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and ended up going nearly bankrupt because he couldn’t hold down sufficient employment after his return to the United States. Owens was a complicated man in real life, a man who was profoundly affected by America’s systematic racism and its ignorance of its athletes once they’re done winning awards. That man is not who you see in “Race.”
What “Race” shows you is a hard-working college student with a beautiful girlfriend and a beautiful young daughter, who looks the other way when white people call him the n-word, who puts up with his coach’s pushiness, who generally is polite and unwilling to hurt others. This Owens is reactive, almost robotic, displaying true personality only a couple of times—and one of those times is a racially fueled interaction that we don’t actually see onscreen—and often turning the other cheek. Was that the man Owens was? Not necessarily. But it’s the man “Race” shows us—an inspiring figure, but a bland one.
“Race” begins with Owens (Stephan James, of “Selma”), a high school track star, leaving home in fall 1933 for The Ohio State University, where he’s coached by Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis, of “Epic”), who is on a losing streak and looking to rebound by taking his runners to the Olympics. Their relationship is testy at first, but as they learn more about each other’s family lives—and when Owens starts winning at national meets, making Snyder’s goals seem attainable—camaraderie grows.
Simultaneously, the American Olympic Committee is deciding whether to even attend the 1936 Olympics in Berlin at all; news out of Germany, about the country’s terrible treatment of Jews and the ascension of Adolf Hitler to power on a racially oppressive platform, is troubling to the Americans. But there’s very little discussion of the hypocrisy of that viewpoint, and what “Race” does irritatingly is skip around comparing Germany and the United States with no real point made.
Black athletes like Owens marvel that they can stay in the same dorms, eat at the same tables, and use the same bathrooms as their fellow white athletes in Germany, but when they say things like “Maybe these Nazis just got a bad reputation” to Jewish athletes, they come off like idiots. Also weird is how noted German propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl appears here almost sympathetically, facing off against Director of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels in her choice to film Owens against his wishes—are we supposed to like her for that, despite all the other terrible things she did and said during Hitler’s rise to power?
“Race” is uneven like that far too often, from its flattened portrait of Owens’s life to its simplistic depiction of the relationship between the United States and Germany. The movie hits its marks with scenes of Owens competing and winning, but practically everything else is off—and feels unsatisfyingly incomplete.
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