Home » Years » 2016 » Race •••1/2

Race •••1/2

Race_2016_film_posterStarring: Stephan James,  Jason Sudeikis,  Eli Goree
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Screenplay: Joe Shrapnel,  Anna Waterhouse
Biography/Drama/Sports, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: February 19, 2016


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Hey, I’ll race you to the end of this review, Scott.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Let’s take our time and do it right. This film deserves it.  Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to young Jesse Owens (Stephan James). He’s rushing to the bus stop to take him to Ohio State University where he will be on the track and field team. His mother has made him a new jacket. He leaves his father with two dollars. He stops at the beauty shop where his girlfriend works. He kisses his two-year-old daughter goodbye. And then he’s on his way to the world of higher education, low wages, and collegiate athletics.

Jesse arrives at Ohio State University where he meets the track coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Snyder is a good coach but hasn’t had much luck fielding a successful team yet. He sees Jessie running some practice heats and is blown away by Owens’ speed. Snyder tells Jessie that with hard work an Olympic gold medal at the 1936 Berlin games is within reach. Meanwhile Jessie meets another woman Ruth (Shanice Banton) who seduces him after reminding him that it’s best to love the one you’re with.

Race is a movie title with a double meaning. Not only are we witness to the emergence of perhaps the finest athlete who ever lived. But also an examination of one of the most significant events in race relations in world history. Jesse Owens was under great pressure to boycott the 1936 Olympic games because Hitler and the Nazi party were victimizing Jews and people of color. At the same time, he had the opportunity to show that Hitler’s racist ideology was false. This film builds to that moment and plays it to its fullest. Race is a very satisfying depiction of the events that made Jesse Owens a hero.

Greg, I’d say not just very satisfying but extremely so. Race is far from perfect — it’s a bit bloated, with several scenes needing to have been left on the cutting room floor. Still, the movie is an effective biopic about one of the greatest athletes in American history. Owens exposed Germany’s brutal regime of hypocrisy, racism, and hate. His journey was gritty, complex, and courageous.

In many ways, this film is reminiscent of the 2013 film 42 which told the story of Jackie Robinson. Just as Robinson needed help from Branch Rickey, Jesse Owens needed help from Larry Snyder. Greg, I know that nothing drives you crazy more than seeing a movie about a Black man who needs help from a White man. But the historical context of Race and 42 positioned Blacks in a state of powerlessness over the rampant institution of bigotry all around them. Our heroes needed a hand from someone with the power to give it to them.

It’s true, Scott. I would like to see more stories of Black empowerment without a side dish of White altruism. However, in the case of Race I was happy to see that Snyder wasn’t working out of White guilt or charity. Rather, he simply wanted to acquire the best athletes he could find. As Owens himself states in the film – Snyder only saw fast or slow. And there is a poignant scene in the film where Snyder tries to convince Owens that race doesn’t matter. And Owens shouts back: “You’re White Larry!” A reminder both to Snyder and the audience that it’s easy to be colorblind when you don’t have to live with the effects of racism every day.

Owens stacks up very well on the Hero scale. When we first meet Owens, we’re witness to his strength of character when he slips his father money as he leaves. He is good to his daughter and his girlfriend. He wears the ridiculous jacket his mother made for him. And he demonstrates that he is a superior athlete, although rough around the edges. He won’t look Snyder in the eye. He won’t stand up to the white men who hassle him in the locker room. And he keeps very much to himself. So he has room to grow.

Snyder walks a fine line here between being the co-hero of this story in addition to being the mentor to our main hero in Jesse Owens. While we do sense bits and pieces of Snyder’s own hero’s journey, he is first and foremost a mentor figure to Owens. The most impressive quality of his heroism resides in the fact that he walks the walk as much as he talks the talk. Snyder has been world-class runner himself and has made many of the sacrifices that Owens has made — minus the huge racial burden, of course.

There is is also a very telling scene in the locker room involving the Black members of the track team being confronted by the bullying White members of the Ohio State football team. The White bullies assert their White privilege, demanding that the track athletes leave the locker room. Snyder steps in to remind Owens and his teammates that to succeed they must ignore all distractions. The football players and coach are screaming in the ear of Snyder, who blocks out their racial rants completely to make his point to the tracksters. It’s show-not-tell — the most powerful way to mentor people.

A good mentor gives advice and gifts so that the hero can survive in the special world. As you already mentioned, Scott, Snyder gives advice. But when Owens is missing practices due to his after hours part-time job, Snyder swings a cushy job where Owens basically collects a paycheck without having to work. This allows Owens to focus on his athletics.

As we’ve noticed in other films (like last year’s Creed), there is a Mentor’s Journey. It usually focuses on a character who is a former hero. Having completing his Hero’s Journey, the former hero now takes what he’s learned and delivers it to an up-and-coming hero. Snyder is a “willing” mentor in that he looks to support the hero. In movies such as Creed and even The Karate Kid the mentor must be convinced to aid the hero. But Snyder is actively seeking young mentees.

Race is an entertaining and informative portrayal of the life of Jesse Owens, one of America’s greatest athletes of the 20th century. Stephan James delivers a terrific performance as Owens, and Jason Sudeikis does more than hold his own playing Owens’ track coach. This movie accurately exposes America’s racist and intolerant Jim Crow laws, and it also depicts the even greater horrors of Nazi Germany’s growing implementation of its Final Solution. I enjoyed seeing this slice of American history and heroism. This film deserves 4 Reels out of 5.

Jesse Owens follows the hero’s journey to the letter. He enters a dangerous world and encounters innocuous villains on the track and nefarious ones outside the track. He is mentored by Snyder and is loved by a woman (or two). One could argue that he undergoes two different transformations. He is humbled in his mishandling of his romantic life, and he gains self-confidence and maturity in his great handling of his athletic life. Owens also upgrades his mission in midstream — he competes in the Olympics, not just to excel personally, but also to puncture Hitler’s prized Aryan race. Owens deserves 5 Heroes out of 5.

The mentor of the story, Larry Snyder, is a terrific character whose own hero’s journey is told in a much more skeletal way than that of Jesse Owens. Snyder is the coach and ally that Owens needs to triumph on his journey. In a very large sense, Owens helps Snyder transform as much or more than Owens himself transforms. Thanks to Owens, Snyder gains stature as a coaching force in the world of track and field. I give Snyder 4 Mentors out of 5.

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Race is a good movie worthy of a better time slot than the February doldrums of the Hollywood release schedule, although just in time for Black History Month. The period costumes, especially the recreation of the Berlin Olympics, were spot on. I felt transported back in time. As with many biopics, sometimes the story seemed hemmed-in by the actual events. But overall, it was an entertaining movie, if not exceptional. I give Race 3 out of 5 Reels.

Jesse Owens is a true historical hero. He was the best athlete of his time. This movie did a good job of depicting the struggles Jesse had to overcome to race at the top of his game. The apex of his challenges comes when he wrestles with the decision to boycott the Olympics in solidarity with the NAACP. Instead he chooses to represent not only America, but Black Americans and brings home four gold medals. I did think that his transformation from an inexperienced, though talented, runner into an Olympian was delivered a bit too easily. So, I am awarding this presentation of Jesse Owens 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Larry Snyder, as played by Jason Sudeikis, is a classic sports mentor. He was once a great athletic hero who must channel his experience and knowledge into an up-and-coming new hero. I liked Sudeikis in this role. He’s better known for his comedic roles, but he played this dramatic character very well. Snyder comes off a little too stereotypical of sports coaches. I prefer a bit more backstory and imperfection to my mentors. So I give Snyder 3 out of 5 Mentors.

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