Race Review



The archetypal biopic is one that feels out of date in contemporary cinema, given the wealth of filmmakers who transcended the traditionalist narrative structure. Whether that means to play around with realism in the way that Don Cheadle managed in Miles Ahead, or to peer into the life of the subject through an outsider’s perspective, as we saw in Anton Corbijn’s Life – there are resourceful means of telling these remarkable stories without the need to revert so frustratingly to type – which is exactly the hurdle where Stephen Hopkins’ Race – on the life of American olympian Jesse Owens – trips over.

Owens (Stephan James) was raised in the humble surroundings of his Alabama home, and was the first in his family to go to college. He opted for Ohio thanks to the reputation of coach – and former track and field athlete – Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Though possessing a remarkable natural talent, and blistering pace, Snyder remains tough on his new student, though is confident that he will be ready to compete at the forthcoming, 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. But with the tyrannical leader Hitler starting to make his mark, questions as to whether the US will even be taking part remain, with Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) entrusted to fly over to Germany and decided if a boycott is necessary. Owens has a moral issue of his own to contend with, having to decide whether he should make a stand against the fascist regime, or conversely, prove that no matter what race or religion you may be, you can still come out a champion.

Race makes for a distinctly unsubtle piece of cinema, that simply doesn’t put enough faith in the incredible set of events that took place. A traditional story of the underdog with immense socio-political layers and ramifications, Hopkins, alongside screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, seem reluctant to let that prevail, instead presenting this tale in such a cliched, overtly cinematic fashion. Just take Selma, Ava DuVernay’s striking biopic on the life of Martin Luther King – we didn’t even see the ‘I have a dream…’ speech, nor do we see the moment he was shot dead. We witness other aspects of his life and have them be emblematic of everything he stood for, and it makes for a more powerful endeavour as a result. Race seems intent in covering too much ground, and without any real focus, where it would beneficial to choose a specific strand and use that to build the narrative upon. We don’t have to see everything.

The music is very manipulative too, with such a faux-inspiring, Chariots of Fire-esque score prominent throughout. Then when the Nazis come on the screen the music becomes dark and sinister, turning them into pantomime villains of sorts. The unnatural dialogue doesn’t help matters either, as it simply isn’t how people converse. As such it creates a distance between the film and viewer and threatens our investment in the piece. When dealing with a biopic you should either be overtly, and deliberately surreal in your approach, or abide by the unspoken commitment to reality that derives from telling a true story – and this does neither of those two things, falling carelessly in between.

On a more positive side, it’s important that we don’t deviate away from Owens’ flaws and imperfections, as we cast our eye over his romantic misdemeanours, in what is far from a sycophantic piece of cinema. But then again, we do brush over them and we’re rarely given the opportunity to digest and ponder over any one thing, with so much crammed into this production. A frustrating ticking of boxes springs to mind.