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Movie Review: 'Race'

The Jesse Owens biopic is way too-on-the-nose and entirely too long.

Review by Matt Cummings

From the moment that the Jesse Owens biopic/social message Race begins, it's clear where this one will go: racism is bad, so are Nazis, but here's a guy who will build bridges on his way to making history. And that's largely how it's played out, with such a lack of enthusiasm that it's not hard to imagine what it could have been with a bit more push.

The fastest man on Earth Jesse Owens (Stephan James) is also one of its least appreciated. As 1930's America struggles with blatant racism, Owens and others are forced to suppress their talents while their families barely eek out an existence. Luckily, his enormous talent - speed - has brought him to Ohio State University and track coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), who sees nearly unlimited potential in Owens. As his star begins to rise, the 1936 US Olympic Committee and its members Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) take note, but are aware of the atrocities being committed by the Nazis as they prepare to host the Olympics. Faced with pressure to boycott the Games, Owens takes center stage, determined to prove to Nazi leader Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) and the film-maker Riefenstahl (Carice von Houten) that race and racism end once the track gun goes off.

Race has much going for it: a solid (but unimpressive) story of perseverance, a solid score by Composer Rachel Portman, and a sense that it's telling a global tale about race in the 1930's as opposed to re-treading familiar ground. But its main problem lies not in why it displays horrible racism to both Blacks and Jews, but how it seeks out those moments. In fact, its biggest problems center on authenticity and quality control, neither of which perform particularly well. Much of the supposedly outlandish pogroms against Jews and Blacks feel like check-boxed moments instead of serving the story. Add images of Jews being attacked without any context, and It's just another moment in a film that misses too many of them.

At least some of the moments of Owens enduring the same thing are a bit more believable, mostly because we've journeyed with him. But that's not an excuse to tell those stories with any less zeal, something that happens far too often here. CGI suffers from a television feel, especially as Jesse arrives at the huge arena in Germany. It's so regrettable when one can spot bad CGI, and there's enough here to fill a film school class. CGI should always hide in the shadows, adding further depth to a story without having to actually construct a grand arena or 1930's Ohio. Seeing it used so haphazardly here makes one cringe at its sometimes hack use.

The same goes for the action, which always feels anti-climactic. We know Owens was stellar, but unlike 42 - which focuses more on the characters than Robinson's achievements - the action here is meant to somehow inspire the viewer. Perhaps Director Stephen Hopkins intended to educate us on Owens's achievements, of which he spends a considerable amount of time in set up and execution. By the time we're done with Jesse's first few races, we're ready to move on to Berlin.

The cast is dependable, even sometimes good, but this is not the stellar historical team of Harrison Ford and Chadwick Bozeman. That's not to say that Stephan and Sudekis are poor choices, because they actually do quite well when together. Take them off that shared stage, and things immediately come apart. It's not unwatchable by any means, but the cracks are fairly evident and they play against your enjoyment. Still, Hopkins does enough to entertain and even educate about Nazi oppression as well as the internal disagreements between Goebbels and Riefenstahl; a moment between her, Hurt and Metschurat is played out with perfect tension as the Nazis try to control Avery and the team.

But in the end, Race fails to work - not because its tired message of racial inequality is...well...tired - but because the film just isn't that good. True, the story of Owens hasn't exactly found itself into the halls of recent cinema, so its story of bi-hemispherical racism might be almost educational to some. But it misses on too many occasions to solidify itself as a contender in the same light as 42 or Hoosiers.

Suffering from a bout of stereotypical racial situations, awful CGI, and action that takes too long to develop, Race tries to make two different films about racism but doesn't quite do either of them very well. Sudeikis and James are fine together, but each suffers when featured with others. It's a good Netflix tale, but hardly worth paying good money to see.

Race is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language and has a runtime of 130 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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