“Think that was about the Holocaust? … That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List was about 600 people who don’t.” Stanley Kubrick is said to have uttered this pointed criticism of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 epic to Frederic Raphael, his Eyes Wide Shut co-writer and the author of a memoir on the making of that film from which the quote is taken. Stephen Hopkins’ Race isn’t about the Holocaust per se, but it is about a moment of triumph amidst a world about to go to hell: runner/long-jumper Jesse Owens’ rise from the depths of racism and the Great Depression in America to become not only a four-time gold medalist in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, but the symbolic refutation of Adolf Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy. Little did any of them know of the genocidal and global horrors just around the corner—a fact that complicates the film’s generally jubilant tone.
To the film’s credit, the filmmakers seem to be aware of this encroaching irony, at least some of the time. Race isn’t only about Owens’ athletic victories. One of its major plot threads revolves around International Olympic Committee Avery Brundage’s (Jeremy Irons) attempts to fight the call from certain committee members for a boycott of the 1936 Olympics, an effort that involved making compromises with the Nazi party. Thankfully, screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse give these undercurrents just enough breathing room to allow a more unsettling question to arise: whether it was worth making a deal with the devil just for the sake of a sporting competition, albeit one loaded with ideals of equality and internationalism. Perhaps the film’s most provocative implications, however, lie in the way it connects racism in America and Germany, finding precious little to distinguish between both—many Americans’ calls for the U.S. to stay out of the Olympics are presented as an example of hypocrisy on a grand scale. It’s telling, then, that the film’s final scene adds an ambiguity to the glow of victory: Owens (Stephan James), having returned from Berlin and about to be feted at a fancy dinner, is still forced to use a side entrance to attend an event in which he himself is being honored. (He would not receive official recognition for his achievements from the U.S. government until the 1970s.)
Even then, the screenwriters can’t help but revert back to uplift mode by including a moment at the end where a white kid approaches Owens to ask for his autograph as he and his wife make their way to a freight elevator. That’s Race in a nutshell: willing to raise tough questions only so much lest its inspirational arc be disturbed. Sure, we see plenty of instances of white bigots threatening, taunting and insulting Owens while he is a student at Ohio State University—but for the most part, he’s insulated from the worst of the racist offenses by his progressive coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). Though Owens himself isn’t painted entirely as a saint—he cheats on his girlfriend, Ruth (Shanice Banton), while on the road, an unfortunate episode that’s resolved almost as quickly as it is introduced—the film nevertheless emphasizes his virtuous nobility. Even notorious filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (played here by Carice van Houten)—whose two-part chronicle of the 1936 Olympics, Olympia, famously documents Owens in competition—is somewhat rehabilitated in this film. Her role as part of the Nazi propaganda machine is downplayed in a more smoothed-out portrait of an uncompromising artist willing to defy her superiors for the sake of getting the best footage.
Jesse Owens’ story is heroic by its very nature, so there was probably no way a film about him wouldn’t be chock-full of feel-good warmth. Still, considering how widely known Owens’ triumphs already are, one can’t help but wonder whether there’s even a need for a movie like Race: a film that generally chooses to comfort rather than challenge in the face of such disturbing subject matter, and one that always stays on the right side of history instead of daring us to consider the other perspective, however uncomfortable it might be. As Kubrick implied with his criticism of Schindler’s List, true artistry involves a willingness to confront even the worst of humanity squarely in the eye. Despite a few concessions toward a grimmer long view, the blandly inspirational Race falls way short of the finish line.
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Writers: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse
Starring: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Shanice Banton, Carice van Houten, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt
Release Date: February 19, 2016
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist, and the Village Voice in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.