Jesse Owens was a runner — but that doesn’t mean Race should run away from his story.
Sadly, that’s exactly what the new biopic about the track star does.
The film centers on the African-American runner, who in 1936 won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, breaking and making world records of his own and winning international acclaim that helped him put Nazi Germany’s ideas of Aryan superiority to shame on German soil.
But that’s about all the film tells us about Owens. We see the moment he made history, but there’s no depth to the man in the middle of that moment.
In Race, Owens's story is reduced to his performance at the Berlin Olympics and the people who helped him get there in the year leading up to the games. He is not presented as a man who stands on his own.
Instead, Race turns Owens into a man who stands for everyone and everything but himself and his racial identity.
Race tells Jesse Owens’s life story by focusing on everyone but Jesse Owens
No one exists in the world alone, but Race takes that fact a bit too far.
The film begins with Owens's first day at college at Ohio State University. Owens, played by black Canadian actor Stephan James, gets sent off to this new chapter of his life by his family. Despite being poor, Owens's grandmother makes sure to give her grandson a new blue blazer. His sister and brother give him a hug. His father, stern, comes downstairs, saying little to his son but nonetheless acknowledging him, which is just enough to count as a sign of approval.
But these few minutes have little significance. Owens's family members, the people who watched Owens display his natural talent in the years before he left for college, rarely have a voice. It's as if they're just spectators instead of being a major part of Owens's life.
Instead, the film focuses on coach Larry Snyder and the American Olympic Committee.
Snyder, played by former Saturday Night Live cast member Jason Sudeikis, is frustrated by his losing streak as a coach at his alma mater. Acutely aware that his job is on the line if he can't turn things around, he opens Owens's file on his desk — and history is made.
But this has the effect of making the movie more about Snyder than its so-called protagonist. Owens is Snyder's saving grace, and much of Owens's campus life inevitably revolves around Snyder. We learn about Owens through his meetings in Snyder's office and his interactions with Snyder at track practice.
And Owens's life away from the track tends to revolve around how he fails to live up to Snyder's expectations, as when the coach confronts Owens outside a campus building because he's missing practice, which is how we learn that Owens has to work a part-time job to pay for books and care for his daughter, who's back home in Cleveland.
There must be more to Owens's life on campus than Snyder, but Race doesn't let us see more than the slightest hint of it. When Snyder confronts Owens, for instance, he is wearing an Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity pin. Alpha Phi Alpha was the first African-American intercollegiate fraternity, but we never get a glimpse of Owens's involvement in the organization.
Did belonging to this group matter to Owens? Seeing what must have been one of the few sources of reprieve for a man who was one of the only black people on campus — an atmosphere in which people made their prejudice well-known — could have told us just as much (if not more) about Owens as his relationship with his coach. Why did the film assume we didn't want to see these moments?
Race is equally heavy-handed with the Olympic committee. The committee did, in fact, debate whether to go to Berlin. Like others around the world, the members of the committee were concerned about whether the games would work in favor of Nazism.
But this supporting detail deserved, at most, a footnote. Instead, it is belabored at length — chronicling committee president Avery Brundage's visit to Germany to assess the situation and his shady business dealings with Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.
If that wasn't enough, the film focuses on Goebbels's interactions with German filmmaker and Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl to add a pseudo-feminist commentary on how the Nazis were a boys' club that Riefenstahl fought by documenting every aspect of the Berlin Games, even when Goebbels told her not to.
Now, each and every one of these characters does have some direct interaction with Owens: Brundage takes him to meet Adolf Hitler after his first win, Goebbels stands stoically as Owens finds himself snubbed by the Fuhrer, and Riefenstahl holds a private session to film Owens reenacting his record-breaking long jumps for all the world to remember. But these people and these moments are a part of Owens's backstory. They are not his story.
The overall effect is that Owens somehow comes off as a stand-in for everyone and everything happening around him, which results in a feature-length film about Owens that has less depth than an encyclopedia entry.
Race’s commentary on race is flat and conventional
Jesse Owens was not a typical black historical figure. His legacy shows how intertwined and complex racism is as a global issue. His story is inherently nuanced, but Race fails to go beyond the frame of the literal black and white.
The best example of this framework comes during a pivotal scene in the Ohio State locker room in the middle of the film.
As football players throw racial slurs at Owens to get him to leave the locker room, Snyder reminds Owens, "It’s just noise." He repeats it again and again, just like he does when Owens is training on the track, until Owens has an odd, zoned-out racial awakening.
The message: Racism will only hurt you if you let it, and black people just have to learn to ignore it. Of course, there's also no one better to teach a black person how to deal with racism than an open-minded white man.
This is a travesty, if only for the simple reality that it's fair to assume Owens had experienced racism long before he entered that locker room, even if the film wants audiences to believe otherwise.
But dumbing down race to "noise" squanders a pivotal opportunity to say there's a lot more to race, especially in terms of Owens's impact at the Berlin Olympics.
American racism and the racism of Nazi Germany are different. But what is so pivotal about Owens is that his story connects those two experiences, highlighting how race is socially constructed to give power to some over others for reasons that tend to be inherently hypocritical.
Owens was discriminated against in the US because he was black. But when he became a black athlete who embarrassed Hitler on his own turf, Owens was lauded as an American hero who helped the country gain the moral high ground as World War II neared. By contrast, when Owens was in Nazi Germany — again, a place marked by its own incredibly destructive form of racism — he nonetheless didn’t have to live in segregated housing or eat in separate dining halls. That's a potentially fascinating dynamic to explore.
But Race is only willing to engage with these questions in situations where racism is decided by head-to-head social battles that yield an obvious winner and loser. Owens wins in the OSU locker room. He wins in Berlin. And he loses when he is forced to take a freight elevator to a reception at the Waldorf Hotel in his honor, because racism doesn't let him enter through the front doors.
Does this do justice to his legacy? Did Owens see these moments as such cut-and-dry wins and losses? What did it mean for him to win the fight against racism in Berlin and in the country he called home, when neither genuinely welcomed him?
We don't know. And, unfortunately, we can't know.
Race is not interested in nuance. It depends too heavily on looking at race like a simple black-and-white issue, even when the racial politics in Germany show that divide doesn't work, and even when Owens, caught between America and Germany, shows it's just not that simple.
The result is complete disregard for Owens's own character development. Race is uninterested in really engaging with its subject matter; instead, it runs away.
Race is playing in theaters across the country.