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New Release Review - RACE

The story of Jesse Owens' triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.





Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Stephen Hopkins

Starring: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt



If you can accept the printing of a dubious legend and embrace your white privilege, Race has enough to keep you entertained, but this is a story that needed to be told from an African-American perspective with no concessions to the fragility of white guilt.



There's been much debate over the reaction of Adolf Hitler to the success of African-American athlete Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The version taught to American schoolkids tells of Hitler making a quick exit form the stadium so as to avoid acknowledging Owens. That stands in contrast to Owens' own version, with the athlete claiming the leader of the Fourth Reich hadn't snubbed him, unlike his own President, Franklin D Roosevelt, who refused to send as much as a congratulatory telegram to Owens. This may not be the version America wants to hear, but denying it is to label Owens a liar. In bringing Owens' story to the screen, a filmmaker is faced with doing right by Owens, and in the process making white Americans feel uncomfortable, or going with the propaganda version of things. No prizes for guessing which option Hollywood has chosen.


Despite this being Owens' story, we don't learn a whole lot about the man beyond the obvious bullet points, while there's a lot of time spent on peripheral figures like Leni Riefenstahl (Carice Van Houten), Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) and International Olympic Committee representative Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons). Owens (Stephan James) spends most of his time listening to the 'white-splaining' of various characters, rarely allowed the chance to express himself. The portrayal of the athlete is dangerously close to offensive, and at one point he's told "You weren't put on this earth to think; you were put here to run," the sort of comment that has cost sports coaches their jobs.

Far more dialogue is afforded Jason Sudeikis as Owens' coach Larry Snyder, the white saviour of the piece. Undoubtedly Snyder played a key role in the athlete's success, but the film seems to play loose with just how committed Snyder was to Owens, who in reality claimed he had to work his way through college, unlike the version here which sees Snyder pull strings to get Owens out of work. Here, Snyder is essentially one of several elements designed to make white viewers feel a little better about themselves.


By Owens' account, Nazi Germany was far more hospitable to him than his own country, but that's conveniently brushed over as director Stephen Hopkins presents us with a vision of Nazism straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. Bizarrely, Riefenstahl is reinvented here as sympathetic to Owens, a victim herself of Nazism and constantly butting heads with the hilariously camp Goebbels. The movie shows her inviting Owens to re-stage his long jump for her camera, but neglects to mention that Riefenstahl asked this of all the winning athletes; there was certainly no favouritism on the propagandist's part. Perhaps Hopkins just wants to feel a little less uncomfortable next time he watches Triumph of the Will.


For all its problematic issues, Race is never dull, which isn't something you can say about most biopics. Sudeikis is great in one of his more meaty roles, and seeing him in 1930s outfits and playing around with a hat so much, I couldn't help think what a good Indiana Jones he might make. Hopkins, a director best known for action movies like Predator 2 and TV's 24, brings an energy to the film that keeps it moving at a pace that would leave Owens himself gasping for breath. If you can accept the printing of a dubious legend and embrace your white privilege, Race has enough to keep you entertained, but this is a story that needed to be told from an African-American perspective with no concessions to the fragility of white guilt.

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