Tuesday, March 22, 2016


RACE is unambiguously a message movie. About the great Olympic runner Jesse Owens (played by Stephen James), the movie concentrates on how Owens got to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and what happened when he got there.

As the title hints, it's not only about the actual Olympics race, but also about the question of "race"— which was on everybody's mind at the time, since Hitler had made such a big deal about the "Aryan race" being superior.

When I was a boy in post-WWII "America," Jesse Owens was still much heralded. And this was before there were many, if any, African-Americans—or what then were called "colored"—athletes in the news, other than Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, "The Brown Bomber" who, like Owens, had to bear the burden of not only representing all people of color, but all who opposed Hitler and his regime (which, a la Charles Lindbergh, was far from all Americans).

Having been born just after the USA's entry into WWII, with my two oldest brothers serving in the military at the end of it, I remember the styles and ways of speaking and general cultural signifiers pretty well, and as is too often the case with movies set in earlier times, RACE gets many things wrong.

And, as is too often the case in biopics whose main characters aren't "white," there has to be one, or more, white characters who get equal if not more screen time (the thinking being "white" audiences won't be able to identify otherwise). In the case of RACE, that's Owen's coach, played by Jason Sideikis, better known for his comic roles, but he gives a good, if anachronistic, performance.

In fact the movie is full of good actors, including the ever intense Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage and the ever laconic William Hurt as Jeremiah Mahoney. But the best performances are by much lesser known actors, like David Cross as the Nazi track star Carl "Lux" Long, Barnaby Metschurat as Goebbels, and Carice von Houten as Leni Refienstahl.

In most of these cases, the actors get some of the historic accuracy wrong (for which I hold the director (Stephen Hopkins) and writers (Joe Sharpnel, Anna Waterhouse) responsible. But there is one small but powerful performance that for me not only felt historically perfect, but worth the price of the movie: Andrew Moodie's, as Jesse's father.

I recommend RACE as a tribute to a great and heroic champion and as a faulty but necessary history lesson for those who don't remember or never knew this story, as well as for those of us long familiar with it and grateful to see it revived.


Robert Slater said...

Jesse Owens was a hero of mine when I was a kid. He spoke at my high school and was a perfect gentleman. I also saw him at The Drake Relays as a marshal. One thing the film fell down on was recognizing the fact that Jackie Robinson's brother (Mack) came in 2nd to Jesse in the 200 m race. That is another story in itself I very much enjoyed the film...

Lally said...

didn't know the Jackie Robinson's brother story, tha would have been a great addition to the film...and how cool you got to see Owens in person...