The Jesse Owens biopic Race is a polite movie about an ugly time

And it would have made for great Oscar bait


Given all the the talk right now about representation in the Oscars, it seems painfully perverse that the Jesse Owens biopic Race is coming out a couple of months too late to qualify for this year's awards. Race is exactly the kind of film the Academy loves to honor: bland, uplifting, respectable, engaged with historical social issues, but not too controversial or directly tied to the present. Its star, Stephan James, is precisely the kind of actor the Academy loves to respect. He brings intensity to a serious movie about overcoming hardship, but not so much intensity as to court controversy or come off as — heaven forbid — angry.

The film posits Owens not just as an all-time great athlete and record-setting Olympic champion who crossed racial barriers to defy Adolf Hitler's Aryan agenda for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He's presented as the sort of humble saint whose success, at least in this palatably packaged version of his life story, suggests a cosmic justice for the downtrodden. But it's a feel-good movie with nothing to offer cynics. Its racial-diversity message is so broad and non-confrontational that it's hard to imagine people protesting or resisting it. Siding against Owens literally means siding with Nazis.

Race starts in 1933, with Owens heading to college at Ohio State University, where his stellar track and field record precedes him. His coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis, acquitting himself comfortably in his first dramatic role), is a former OSU track star who has returned to his alma mater after enduring his own Olympic failures. Snyder's unconventional training tactics and Owens' talents and willingness to work hard quickly become a potent combination, taking Owens into the record books, and then off to Germany to compete for his country.

Screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse work a little too hard to cram some of the more incredible aspects of Owens' story into their script. The childhood incident where his mother removed a fibrous lump from his chest in a messy bit of home surgery was apparently too juicy not to mention — but they can't find any natural way to bring it up, so they just have his mother recite Jesse's history to him while saying goodbye. The prejudice Owens faced throughout his life is reduced to a few minor incidents where other athletes call him predictable names, or where Owens, in spite of his fame, remains subject to his era's racist American laws and policies. The confrontations are suitable for riling up the blood, but only enough to create a sense of victory when Owens overcomes.

Still, Shrapnel and Waterhouse commendably resist the urge to try to cover Owens' life from birth to death, or to find a neat, pat moral through-line that explains him. Many recent biopics have focused on one meaningful point in their subjects' past, using it as a lens to explain everything in that person's. Owens' story is so based in physical, visible action that it lets the writers explain his life through what he does, not through some apocryphal moment that defines what he thinks. Relying on the thrill of the running scenes, on what Owens accomplishes, lets Race come by its uplift through action, instead of big speeches.

But director Stephen Hopkins often blunts the impact by giving the film a fine prestige gloss, a stately remove that makes it easier to see it as history, rather than the raw echo of the present that Selma so recently presented. There are exceptions: the long, unbroken shot when Owens first emerges into the Berlin stadium has an immediacy and craft that the rest of the film lacks. The training montages crackle with a lively, cheeky energy. Sudeikis brings his comic timing and an intriguing combination of ego and humility to his role. And the film is surprisingly sympathetic to German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, played by Game of Thrones' Carice van Houten as a principled, fearless artist covertly resisting the Nazi agenda. She makes for a sparkling presence in a male-dominated film. But Snyder, Riefenstahl, and Owens all have the same problem in Race: they're being flattened and idealized.

James' portrayal of Owens is formal and respectable. The film occasionally, briefly lets Owens express his seething anger over the injustice of prejudice. But as white and black people alike start to try to suborn him for their conflicting agendas, he navigates the pitfalls of fame with a noble humility that falls a little short of human. Star Wars star John Boyega was originally signed to play Owens, and it makes one wonder how his version of Owens might have been different, given his looser, more comic leanings. James, most recently seen as young civil rights leader John Lewis in Selma and murdered high-school football star T.K. Kelly in When The Game Stands Tall, capably portrays a young man called on to represent his country while he's still worried about feeding his child and supporting his family. But he also isn't given much chance to portray Owens as a complicated person, rather than an avatar of graciousness and sacrifice.


Thibault Grabherr / Focus Features

It's impossible in 2016 to watch a movie like Race without considering what it means in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, when even the Super Bowl halftime show can spark race-driven protests. But the film's racial agenda couldn't be more placatory and safe. In a key scene, OSU's all-white football team barks racist invective at the track team, and Owens and his friends are distracted, frustrated, and demoralized. So Snyder deliberately keeps his trainees in the locker room as the football team comes in, and as the players' hateful protests become increasingly shrill, he lectures the runners on how to shut out the noise. It's one of Hopkins' more technically creative scenes: the football team's hatred eventually flattens into ignorable background noise, and then into polite silence. It's a nice trick, but a suspect message: just ignore racism and racist attacks, and they'll go away, leaving you to achieve your dreams in peace. If only the world were that simple.

It's a suspect message: just ignore racism, and it will go away

Race reaches for the same message on a grander scale, as Owens quietly puts his head down and ignores the head-butting between America and Germany over the latter's increasingly fascist policies, the round-up and erasure of Jewish citizens, and the attempts to push non-white, non-Protestant competitors out of the Olympics. He goes on to break records and win glory by simply not hearing what's being said about him. There are tremendous moments in Race, the kind of moments that play well in Oscar clips and make viewers feel good about themselves, their country, and the world. But for all its powerful moments and daring simply in bringing another black hero's story to the screen, Race could stand to be rougher around the edges, and more confrontational in its message. It's a polite form of history that makes pretty pictures out of an ugly situation.