Courtesy of The New York Times

March 4, 2016

Racing to Mediocrity

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Now that this year’s Academy Awards have been doled out, we are feverishly weaseling out potential contenders for next year’s race. In general, the biopic genre rarely has difficulty gaining critical attention any time of the year. However, the biopic Race does not look like a promising contender for next year.

Race sheds light on sprinter Jesse Owens (Stephan James), who began his formidable running career as a track and field runner for Ohio State University before running in the 1936 Olympics, held in a chaotic Nazi Germany on the brink of war. Owens owes part of his success to his college coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), who is portrayed as the stereotypical mentor leading his mentee down the path of hardships to the awards podium. The film juggles themes of race, injustice and determination as it tries to pull itself together into a hopeful Oscar selection.  In the end,  the film falls short, merely becoming a respectful ode to the late track runner.

The film commences with Owens’ departure for college and his stoic and unemotional farewell with his family. At the start of Owens’ training at Ohio State, Coach Snyder views Owens as the typical “diamond in the rough” and is excessively attentive to his progress.

What strikes the viewer as odd and misguided is the lack of pace the first half of the movie demonstrates.  In   one scene, the intensity level skyrockets as Owens and Synder converse and the movie tries but fails to propel itself into a dramatic thriller. The miscast Sudeikis does not help the histrionics when he simply opts for cheaply slamming his desk or a drinking from his bottle whenever tension arises rather than displaying sincere emotion.

During the 1930s, formal racial segregation  was enacted. Given the political climate that saw Whites as a superior race, the dialogue between Owens and Snyder, who was white, seems peculiar. Stephan James’ Owens appears self-absorbed and conceited at times, as if he has forgotten what time period he was in. He surely does not act subserviant to Snyder. At some points, James’ delivery was witty and appealing, but overall it felt out of place with the given circumstances. Additionally, the script itself falters in fleshing-out characters and succumbs to the predictable dialogue that functions merely to meet stereotypical film guidelines.

Race ambitiously puts a lot on its plate. The title of the film itself has dual meaning but is not a good depiction of what the film ultimately is trying to represent.  Instead of focusing clearly on Owens and his record-breaking strides as an African American, we are  given an underdeveloped relationship between a coach and player. At the same time, we are given an unnecessary storyline of the U.S. Olympic Committee deciding whether or not America should even participate in the games.

Many of the earlier scenes focus not on Owens’ training, but rather on USOC member Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and his affairs in Berlin. During these scenes, he is seen perusing the city and asserting to Minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) that in order for America to participate in the Olympic Games, Germany must be more conservative in their anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda.

The dichotomy of these two events are related but never find the right pacing amongst themselves, and as a result, neither gets the full attention it deserves. This leads to forced racist banter, excessive motivational monologues and an overdramatic cast — all of which unfortunately fails to be as gripping as director Stephen Hopkins intended.

Sudeikis, who has found comedic success from Saturday Night Live and Horrible Bosses, seems grossly miscast for the role as a fierce and unrelenting track coach. I was never able to get comfortable seeing him bark and shout at officials and at Owens, as his demeanor felt forced and one-dimensional. It’s an honest effort, but doesn’t resonate well with the emotional undertone the film tries to portray.

Further,  Stephan James crafts a palpable Jesse Owens who is skilled at depicting external conflict, but lacks the depth and sincerity to depict grave internal conflict (especially when his ambivalence towards participating at the Olympic Games only makes himself appear indecisive, rather than truly torn).

The film fortunately does pick up towards the latter half when the Olympics begin and we witness Owens as a symbol of more than just track and field. Still, nothing monumental inspires this film. It is a shame since Owens’ triumph was a staple not only for African Americans, but for all Americans and people around the world.

Race never really reaches full sprint and seems to walk sheepishly over the finish line even though it addresses complex social and political themes such as perseverance, anti-Semitism, segregation and the tyrannical Nazi regime.