Hollywood seems to pride itself on biopics of historical Black figures. Over the past several years, Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Bessie Smith’s stories have all gotten the film treatment. This year, it’s Olympic Gold medalist and track star Jesse Owens’ turn in the film “Race”.
During the Great Depression and the height of Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany, Owens defied all odds. He was not only the fastest man in the world, but he also became the face of America at the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936. “Race”, which stars “Selma” actor Stephan James, is about Owens’ incredible rise and unprecedented success.
Film studios often get biopics wrong because they present a glossy version of a person’s life. The settings are perfect, and though the story hits all of the major plot points in the figure’s life, they often lack authenticity. Even with a stunning performance by the film’s lead, as was the case with Chadwick Bosemen’s portrayal of James Brown in “Get On Up”, something typically lacking. The audience is left feeling as though they are viewing this person and their trials and tribulations behind a two-way mirror. Their life becomes spectacle, on display for 21st century moviegoers. Rarely does the audience feel as if they are moving through the journey with the character. One of the most recent exceptions was Jamie Foxx’s 2004 performance in “Ray”.
“Race”, while beautifully shot and helmed with some stellar performances, has that filmy layer of fabrication cast over it. The sets are perfectly polished, even the ones set in Great Depression Ohio. Likewise, the acting (while fantastic) does not aid in grounding the audience in the time period.
The film opens with Owens running around his segregated neighborhood the morning he leaves home to attend Ohio State University. We watch as he bids farewell to his family, girlfriend, and child. Upon arriving at OSU, we meet Jason Sudeikis’ character, Coach Snide, who’s determined to get Owens to the Olympics, mostly, perhaps, for his own personal reasons. Coach Snide has some funny lines and pieces of advice, specifically in relation to race. Though some are cornier than others, they’re still valuable. Snide’s lack of concern for Owens’ grades, in contrast to his deep involvement with his athleticism, also draw parallels major issues that plague many sports programs in universities across this country today.
As someone who has always been intrigued by the intricacies of history, I loved seeing the controversy and pushback as the United States Olympic Committee struggled with the decision as to whether the country should attend the Berlin games or not. The antisemitism and subsequent laws imposed by the Nazi Regime were in direct correlation to the Jim Crow South and segregated North that Black Americans experienced in the United States. Ultimately, the Olympic Committee simply pressured the Nazis into being more “discreet” for the sake of the Games.
Another wonderful aspect about “Race” is its presentation of physicality. Playing a world-renowned athlete required Stephan James to sculpt his body in the build of a runner. On screen, the muscles and movement are truly a thing of beauty.
Owens’ personal life wasn’t entirely swept under the rug either. He was a hero and a great athlete, but he was also just a man, one with flaws who fell into the temptations that fame and notoriety bring with them.
The conflict between Owens and the NAACP over his decision to attend the Olympic Games in Berlin was also a powerful sequence of scenes, one that isn’t often discussed when reflecting on Owens legacy or the history of the NAACP.
“Race” isn’t a bad film or biopic for that matter. It’s beautifully shot, informative, and has some fantastic actors helming it. However, that’s exactly what you’d expect. A great deal of the film is spent gliding along the surface of Owens’ life, and for such a pivotal figure in not just Black American history, but in world history as a whole, “Race” doesn’t quite earn a gold medal.
“Race” will be released in theaters Friday, February 19, 2016
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami