I try very hard to avoid reviews of films I intend to see, but the bad reviews of Race, the Jesse Owens biopic, were fairly unavoidable in my sphere. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to see the film, especially since it had been out for a while and I really wanted to celebrate finally being over a cold. So I almost saw another film instead. However, the spirit of the ancestors guilted me into seeing Race. And it really wasn’t that bad at all. Problem is, it also wasn’t great. But I really did enjoy it! Kind of.
The things that Race gets right, it gets really right.
The things Race gets wrong, however, are so glaringly wrong that you’re just sitting there like “Wayment, did they really just make this Nazi likable?”
So let me start from the beginning. Race is the estate-approved biography of Olympic gold-medalist Jesse Owens. It seemed to me that it got very little advanced publicity. I did not hear about it until I saw a poster for it in a theater in January. And I was like well I’ll be damned, a black film during black history month about somebody who had a great story as well as a rather sad after-story.
Race runs a little long, but it’s very well done. Beautiful scenes. Rich colors. But the number one complaint I have is not the lack of black characters, but like damn, so many white characters! The film tries to make “fetch” happen by telling this side story of high intrigue on the US Olympic Committee and whether or not they will boycott the Berlin Olympics in 1936. And it’s like… of course you won’t boycott because we already know this story, so get off my cot damn screen and show me more black bodies.
THEN they have this side story about this German woman documentarian who I had never heard of because I literally never studied World War II and I have no idea what I was doing in high school. But anyway they are showing this woman who has all this access to the Olympics because Hitler hand-picked her to document how awesome the Nazis are and how they are gonna beat these non-Aryan athletes.
That part isn’t so bad, but the lady comes off as sooooo angelic that you kind of forget SHE CREATED PROPAGANDA FOR THE EFFING NAZIS. Like really lady, you suck. Show me more black bodies!
Jason Sudeikis was good, by the way. But because I am spiteful, I am spending no more time on a white person in this review.
The casting (of the black people) was really good! I am a sucker for Degrassi alumni and Stephan James (as Jesse) and Shanice Banton (as Ruth) did not disappoint. I also appreciated the brief appearance of Glynn Turman (who I guess is just not going to age, huh?) as an activist who tries to convince Jesse to boycott the Olympics. Another standout is Andrew Moodie, who plays Henry Owens, Jesse’s stoic father.
Let’s get back to the attention to detail. As a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, I already knew that Jesse Owens was frat. His daughters participated in the Daughters of Alpha event at the 2009 General Convention in New Orleans. I also knew that his teammate Ralph Metcalfe was also frat. What I did not expect was for the filmmakers to give a crap about that fact. Although the fraternity was not mentioned, it was so amazing to see Jesse and Ralph wearing fraternity pins all of a sudden. More than that, they were period-appropriate! I have seen pictures of that version of the pin from the early years and when I tell you I was speechless at the level of detail! I mean I almost cried!
So why not show more about Jesse’s adaptation to campus life? Why not mention why pledging Alpha was important to him? Why not more of the home life?
These are questions that could have been answered had the filmmakers not been so pressed to tell white people’s stories with Jesse’s story as the background. I would even settle for more track scenes. Seems to me like perhaps there wasn’t enough drama on the field? Maybe because the brother was so bad (as in good) that the meets really were uneventful.
Anyway… I did like Race. I really did. But it’s not without its problems. I do not know that it will hold the attention of middle-schoolers or be useful to them in learning about Jesse Owens’ life. But I do know that it was otherwise well-done with some bright spots that made it worthwhile.
Perhaps in ten years they can reunite the cast and tell the rest of the story, with more black bodies and less awareness of the white gaze.