The timing of Stephen Hopkins' Race is perfect. The Jesse Owens biopic comes out during Black History Month, just in time to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, where Owens won four gold medals and, so the story goes, took a stand against the racial politics of the Nazis and showed Adolf Hitler exactly where to stow it. Constructing a myth is a lot like editing a film; you have a particular narrative in mind, and you comb through piece after piece of material, keeping everything that best supports your vision, and discarding everything that is extraneous or irrelevant to it. So it’s no surprise that Race also conveniently alters or discards what is inconvenient and unflattering. But it is disappointing.
Covering the beginnings of Owens’ career is a tedious journey to follow. Owens is shown making a name for himself in college athletics through a series of track meets that quickly become repetitive. Much of Owens’ struggle is depicted through the lens of his relationship with his coach, Larry Snyder. The most compelling part of Owens’ road to the Berlin Olympics are the conflicting pressures placed on him as an athlete representing the United States of America, as a black American, and as an individual whose own ambitions are overshadowed by what his country and community demand of him. But we get maybe two or three scenes that really delve into that aspect of Owens’ life. Mostly, it isn’t so much the Jesse Owens story as the story of how Jesse Owens helped his white coach get his groove back. For a film professing to pay homage to a prominent individual in the annals of Black history, I probably don’t need to spell out why this is problematic.
While the film’s pacing was way too slow off the blocks, you saved it in the final act. The plot finally hits its stride when we arrive in Berlin. There is little suspense, as we know how Owens fared at the games, but there is enough drama and intrigue there for three feature films. There is something for everyone at the Berlin Olympiad; history buffs can boo and hiss at Joseph Goebbels, film geeks can boo and hiss (or not) at Leni Riefenstahl, and sports movie enthusiasts are treated to highly engaging, kinetic race sequences. You establish a good rhythm going back and forth between the athletic sequences and the quieter scenes that establish the personal and political challenges faced by the athletes and Olympic officials, creating a compelling snapshot of a world on the brink of war.
While your editing ultimately shines, it’s the other more insidious narrative ‘editing’ I just couldn’t stomach. The plot makes a big deal out of the widely mythologized snubbing of Owens by Hitler. There have been numerous eyewitness accounts since 1936 disputing the claim that Hitler deliberately snubbed Owens at the Berlin Olympics – most importantly, Owens’ own account. According to him, the head of state who actually snubbed him was President Roosevelt, but I suppose that would be one of those uncomfortable, inconvenient snippets best left on a proverbial cutting room floor. When paying cinematic tribute to an individual, why stop at altering (if not flat-out disregarding) said individual’s own stated truth?
In Race, the audience is sold quite the bill of goods. The film is touted as celebrating Jesse Owens’ achievements within the greater context of Black history. However, narrative focus is split among four characters, and only one of them is Jesse Owens. Or black. Far too much time and attention is spent privileging the perspectives of white supporting characters. What makes things even worse is that their actions and motivations are themselves based on highly contentious accounts (I wanted to use the term ‘whitewashing’ but figured it might be too on the nose). If it was uncomfortable to sit through the glowingly flattering portrayal of Leni Riefenstahl, it was downright galling to watch the depiction of American Olympic Committee head, Avery Brundage, as an upstanding, idealistic champion of human rights when he was actually a vocal anti-Semite who made nice with Nazis to further his own ambitions.
Ironically, Race is a painfully accurate Jesse Owens biopic. Not as the story of an exceptional Black American athlete, but as the story of an exceptionally talented individual used by a mythmaking apparatus as a stand-in for an ideal. His actual life story proves less important than the narrative shaped to propagate a particular set of nationalist myths, in 1936 and once again in 2016.