By Jon Gallagher
Race (Focus Features, 2016) – Director: Stephen Hopkins. Writers: Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse. Stars: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt, Eli Goree, Shanice Banton, Carice van Houten, David Kross, Jonathan Higgins, Tony Curran, Amanda Crew, Barnaby Metschurat, Vlasta Vrana, Shamier Anderson, & Jesse Bostick. Color, Rated PG-13, 134 minutes.
It’s hard for me to imagine my dad in any way other than the way I remember him: a short, aging, potbellied man who had a pair of bad hips and spent most of his time huffing and puffing after any kind of strenuous exertion, brought on by years of smoking, emphysema, and COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). It seemed to me, even in my preteen years, that Dad was overweight even though pictures of him contradict that image.
It was hard for me to picture him as a track star, something he always talked about with pride. In 1938, when he was a senior in high school, he set a school record for the 440-yard dash (a quarter mile) with a time under one minute. This was particularly impressive because when I was in high school, the closest I could come was several seconds over a minute, and I thought I was hauling ass when I did that.
Dad told me that much of his inspiration had come from Jesse Owens, a track and field star who had returned from the 1936 Olympics with four gold medals. Since I wasn’t interested in track (baseball and basketball were my sports), I filed the name away into the recesses of my memories. Other than to know that Owens was a black man who was very fast and had run against and beaten Adolph Hitler’s Nazi athletes, I was clueless about the man.
Race solved that. The film stays true to the actual history that surrounded a very turbulent time in world history. The question is, “Does the title refer to a contest to determine who or what is the fastest, or does it refer to the classification of people, based mainly on the color of their skin?” The answer is “Yes. It refers to both.” The message it delivers in regard to the latter is as powerful as any movie’s message in a very long time.
We’re not hit over the head with the message to begin with. It’s spoon fed to us in little bites, allowing us, the audience, to gradually become incensed with the bigotry and prejudices faced by blacks before the Civil Rights Movement.
The movie begins with Owens (James) getting ready to head off to college. He has a girlfriend and a child out of wedlock, a somewhat scandalous situation in the mid 1930s no matter the race. Owens boards a bus that will take him to Ohio State University where he’s to be part of the track team and that’s where we’re introduced to the prejudices that we’ll see throughout the movie. A small, almost unnoticeable sign advises “Coloreds move to the back.”
Jesse meets his coach, Larry Snyder (Sudeikis) who will be his mentor for the rest of his life. Snyder is a taskmaster, a drill sergeant who demands both hard work and dedication. While in the locker room, Owens is the recipient of some racial taunts and further discrimination.
Meanwhile, the United States and the Olympic Committee is trying to decide whether or not to participate in the 1936 Olympic Games which are being held in Berlin. Although Hitler hasn’t started invading other countries (and thus, the War), he’s been getting more than his share of attention and it’s well known that the German dictator does not want neither Jews nor Negros competing in his games.
The Olympic Committee sends Avery Brundage (Irons) to Germany to investigate the rumors of Nazis rounding up all the “undesirables” from the streets (meaning anyone who was Jewish), and to negotiate the United States’ participation in the games. He sees the Nazis rounding up families and transporting them to concentration camps on the outskirts of Berlin. He sees signs that (in German) tell people not to shop with Jewish businesses. He sees a very ugly position being taken by the German government.
We meet Joseph Goebbels (Metschurat), the Minister of Propaganda, who is the mastermind of the games. Goebbels needs the U.S. to participate and finally agrees to allow the U.S. to bring along Jews and blacks as a condition of U.S. participation.
Brundage returns to the U.S. with the recommendation that the U.S. send an Olympic team. It’s a close vote, and by a margin of just 58-56, they decide to attend the Games.
Meanwhile, Jesse is being pressured by all sides including the NAACP who ask him not to attend and support their boycott because of the treatment of blacks at home.
In the end, Jesse decides to go, Snyder goes too (even though he was not asked to be a coach on the team), and he ends up winning four gold medals while forging a friendship with the German track and field star Carl “Lutz” Long (Kross). Jesse wins his fourth medal when he has to step in and run a leg of the 400-meter relay because the Germans asked that two Jewish athletes not be allowed to take part.
As I mentioned, the movie stayed true to the historic events, varying only once (that was obvious). While Jesse is competing in his events in Germany, his family is gathered around a radio back home in America to listen live. The technology did not exist to broadcast live from Germany (not to mention the time difference). It’s a minor point, and one I’m willing to concede to literary license given the accuracy of the rest of the film. It should be noted, however, that the 1936 Olympics were the first games to be televised, though in a very limited area in Germany, and certainly not live.
Stephan James does an admirable job in his role as Jesse Owens. Because of the backlash in Hollywood over the past two years concerning no actors of color being nominated for major awards, it wouldn’t surprise me if he nabs a nomination in the Best Actor category, even if it’s not deserved. Don’t get me wrong; James does a great job in his role, but he shows very little acting range. Had he reacted more strongly to the incidents of bigotry he suffered, I might have been inclined to agree with a nomination. However, his decision to play the role as a “humble black man” disappointed me just a bit. Owens was known for his humble attitude, at least in public, and he may never have shown any anger behind closed doors, but seeing it on the screen, and using that anger as a motivating factor (more than it was) would have really hammered home the message.
Jason Sudeikis and Jeremy Irons are both tremendous with their roles. Usually Sudakis takes on comedy roles, so it was nice to see him take on a very different role. Stepping out of his comfort zone really added to his performance. Irons, a classically trained actor, takes on such varied roles anyway, and his didn’t even seem to be a challenge to him. It’s always a pleasure to watch an actor take on a role so well, and so effortlessly.
Carice van Houten plays videographer Leni Riefenstahl, the woman who was responsible for filming the 1936 Olympic Games to preserve for posterity the superiority of the German athlete. I have to admire her for taking such a minor role in the movie, and elevating it to such an important one. I’m not sure if the “real” Riefenstahl acted as the portrayed one, but her resolve to do things her own way stood out as one of the more notable performances.
The movie is stolen, however by Barnaby Metschurat, who plays Joseph Goebbels. Although he never utters a single word in English, his portrayal of the German Minister of Propaganda is worth of an award for Best Supporting Actor. He uses his eyes and his expressions to strike fear among not just the other characters, but in the audience as well. I found myself scared to death of him as he just oozed the poisonous philosophy of the Nazi Party. His eyes became the epitome of evil.
The movie is rated PG-13, but be prepared for some rather coarse language. These words were not used in the movie; they came from a 70-year-old lady seated across the aisle from me. She was pissed at the way Jesse was being treated, and she wasn’t afraid to voice her displeasure (much to the chagrin of her husband who seemed to keep sinking in his seat).
This movie will stir your emotions (as it did that lady’s – I’m not kidding about her). As I said earlier, it starts off slowly, giving you baby bites of the bigotry before finally hitting you with it like a Mack truck. The end of the movie shows Jesse and Coach Snyder, along with their wives, approaching a New York City hotel where there is a dinner being given in Jesse’s honor. The doorman refuses the Owens’ entrance through the main door and directs them through the kitchen instead because colored people weren’t allowed to use the main entrance, no matter who they were.
This elicited a comment from the lady across the aisle of “You left-handed dick licker!” I’ve never heard that phrase before (and doubt that I ever do again), but she seemed to take some pride in being able to utter a string of insults without ever using the same one twice.
If your emotions are not stirred by Race, then there will be a receptacle at the door in which you can drop your membership card of the human race.
The film misses my coveted A+ rating by the slimmest of margins. I give it a hearty A, and only because the first 45 minutes, though interesting, seem to drag. That is the worst thing I can say about this movie as the rest of it is just absolutely excellent.
Go see it? YES! Rent it or stream it? Absolutely. Own it? I’ll think very strongly about it.
It’s just that good.