Still Running the Tragic American ‘Race’

Race documents the powerful legacy of the accomplishments of Jesse Owens, the black Olympic athlete (and Ohio native) who challenged the notion of Aryan supremacy espoused by Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympic Games.

click to enlarge Stephan James as Jesse Owens in Race
Stephan James as Jesse Owens in Race

The question of who is deserving of a biopic came to mind as I watched director Stephen Hopkins — television series specialist known for contributions to Showtime originals like Californication, Shameless and House of Lies — dedicate himself to his recent well-intentioned history lesson. Race, from screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, documents the powerful legacy of the accomplishments of Jesse Owens, the black Olympic athlete (and Ohio native) who challenged the notion of Aryan supremacy espoused by Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympic Games.

It goes without saying that, based on the historic impact of his ability to seize the moment on the grandest stage possible, Owens certainly has a place in the athletic pantheon. But, beyond the undeniable legacy, I found myself thinking about this film from the standpoint of an industry that always has an eye on the bottom line — because, let’s remember, when it comes to film, what we naively think of as the present is always receding in the rearview mirror.

Think about it this way: Is Owens the face of a movement? Was he ever? He was a remarkable athlete in his day, but did track and field offer the kind of platform for him to challenge and inspire a generation of others in the way that, for instance, Jackie Robinson did when he broke the color barrier in professional baseball? The Robinson reference is obviously pertinent, since Chadwick Boseman slipped into that historic role and catapulted from 42 to Get On Up to now joining the superhero ranks in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the Black Panther. But Robinson, the man and the player, bares the distinction of being honored every year by every player in the league wearing his number on their jerseys. He might not have been the best black player, but he was the first, and we will never forget it.

Race is not so much the story of Owens or that moment in history. No, Race speaks to America and our complex, still-unfolding legacy with regards to race and culture. Due to happenstance, Race arrives as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences holds its breath, hoping that it has done enough to squash the rising boycott tide by African-Americans over a second year of snubs in the major categories.

Race features the intensely focused stare of Stephan James as Owens on the posters as he sprints toward a likely and inevitable first-place finish. The Academy must be dreaming of the possibility of this film serving as a corrective of sorts for 2016.

But what we get, in the end, is more of the same. Owens wasn’t one of those signature personalities, nor was his sport an attention-grabber for a younger generation. So filmmakers work the time-honored bait and switch, shifting the perspective from the relatively unknown James by casting a comedic performer like Jason Sudeikis, looking for an opportunity to break out with a more dramatic turn as the athletic coach. The move allows for a buddy dynamic and sets Sudeikis up as the go-to for the promotional run leading up to the film’s release.

The potential existed, in the case of both 42 and Get On Up, for this scenario to rear its ugly head (with Harrison Ford as team owner Branch Rickey in 42 and Dan Aykroyd as James Brown’s business manager Ben Bart in the later movie) but, again, we “knew” Robinson and Brown. The perceived lack of familiarity with the Owens story means American audiences need a relatable savior to steady the ship.

I credit Hopkins and the writers, though, for sneaking in reminders throughout the narrative of the American guilt and culpability in the overall aura of global discrimination. The script repeatedly points out that America’s treatment of its black citizens makes us ill-suited to the moral high ground when it comes to Nazis. There is definitely a marked difference in degree, but Race doesn’t completely paint us as saints.

Sadly, I find myself wishing that Race spent even more time pursuing this argument, spotlighting Owens as the solitary figure taking on this challenge for us all, rather than falling back to the safe and comfortable remove that has become the American position on race. Maybe then Jesse Owens could have claimed the attention he truly deserves. (Opens wide Friday) (PG-13) Grade: C+

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