‘Race’ falls short of the finish
The story of Jesse Owens is a miraculous one: an underprivileged African-American man overcoming overwhelming odds to race in the Olympics held in Nazi-controlled Germany. Owens set world and European records and won four gold medals, remaining undefeated in every event. He even befriended a German competitor. These are all feats that the great Jesse Owens was able to accomplish, perfect for an epic biopic. And yet, somehow, Stephen Hopkins’ “Race” is anything but.
A mishandled film that jumps from storyline to storyline without a semblance of structure, “Race” is so close to being a good movie. It has everything that it needs to be successful. There is a winning performance from its lead, Stephan James, a surprising turn from a normally comedic actor, Jason Sudeikis, and outstanding set design throughout the film. The film however feels just like that. It isn’t a complete film, but a series of great pieces to an unfinished puzzle. It was on the verge of being great but is instead mediocre. The story focuses on Jesse Owens, beginning with his acceptance to college and finishing with his victories in Berlin. We follow Jesse in his personal and professional lives as he navigates his way through the struggles of being an African-American man in 1930s America.
There are sections of the film that are exceptional, such as Jesse’s track meets in college. The visual design and audio engineering envelope the audience into a whirlwind of emotion as a ten second race feels like hours as we brutally wait for Jesse to succeed or fail in his endeavors. These well-crafted scenes create an environment that genuinely develops a care for our lead, but it falters in the quasi-emotional scenes that follow literally every race. His interactions with his coach are forced and uncomfortable as the lack of chemistry between the two divides them as well as the scene we’re trying to focus on. Instead of building the characters as people, we’re forced to watch cartoonish clichés that carry little to no emotional weight.
The film finally culminates in Berlin as Jesse wins his four gold medals, setting world records in the process. It’s an epic series of events that could become the main draw in a masterpiece film but instead feels flat and unimportant as we’ve already seen how good Jesse is and know he’ll win every race. There was never any fear or worry about his competition so the film never felt as important as it did in the original track meets. All together, “Race” is a film that could have been something great, but slipped up right before the finish line.