How a Bunch of White People Screwed Up Jesse Owens’ Story in ‘Race’

A couple of months back, the LA Times’ Rebecca Keegan wrote a very good piece on what she called “The Ishtar Effect,” after the notorious 1987 flop that marked the end of Elaine May’s directorial career. But as Anne Hathaway noted to Keegan, “A male director can have a series of failures and still get hired,” and that notion ricocheted through my head during the opening of the new Jesse Owens biopic Race, which is directed by one Stephen Hopkins.

Who is Stephen Hopkins, dare you ask? Well, he’s a filmmaker who, following the success of Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (one of the lesser Freddys, and that’s saying something), managed to line up a string of high-profile studio pictures in the 1990s: Predator 2, Judgment Night, Blown Away, The Ghost and the Darkness, and Lost in Space. Every single movie he made was lousy, none were particularly big hits, and yet he kept getting shots, over and over again. (The phrase “failing up” comes to mind.) After 2000’s barely released Under Suspicion (which re-teamed Unforgiven’s Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, yet you somehow still haven’t heard of it), he spent most of the subsequent years working in television, including the HBO biopic The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, and that film is about the only possible explanation for how he got this gig.

The strange career of Race’s director is worth summarizing because, in many ways, it encapsulates what’s wrong with the film: it’s a mismatch of filmmaker and material that’s downright puzzling, and that sense of incongruity is smeared all over the movie. The rise of Mr. Owens – who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, right under the nose of Adolf Hitler – is a compelling and powerful story of hard work, courage, and triumph over adversity. You can understand why it’s ripe for cinematic interpretation; frankly (aside from a 1984 TV movie), it’s surprising it took this long.

Stephan James in "Race"

Yet his story somehow isn’t enough for Hopkins and screenwriters Joe Schrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. Instead, they keep abandoning the engaging Owens storyline for lengthy sidebars about the American Olympic committee’s debate over boycotting the games, with heartfelt monologues from Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) and Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons). There are full dramatizations of Brundage’s trips to Germany, his negotiations with Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), and his interactions with Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten). Brundage gets a crisis of conscience, even; frankly, he’s written as a more complex character than good-guy Owens.

Therein lies the problem. All of the wrangling of the Olympic committee and the historical context of Germany circa 1936 are relevant background to Owens’ story, but that’s what they should be: background. A full exploration of its complexities and politics are fodder for a TV miniseries, not the B-story of an American hero’s biography – unless you’re talking about filmmakers who don’t know how to tell his story.

And that seems to be the case. His family and background are tackled in an opening scene that includes some of the clumsiest dialogue you’ve ever heard; the backstory of his coach and mentor Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) is dispatched in a radio commentary so hilariously obvious, you’d think the radio was tuned to W-EXPOSITION. The filmmaking is maddeningly simpleminded (it’s one thing to convey information via the hoary device of a letter home to Jesse’s girl; cutting to his daughter as he asks about her is a whole other level), and the cinematography is borderline incompetent. Perhaps our screening was plagued by poor projection, but the images are so dim and washed-out – presumably an attempt to give the historical film a faded, sepia-ish look, but looking more like a movie that’s been left out in the sun too long – that I found myself squinting at the screen much of the time (and recalling Bradford Young’s comments about white cinematographers’ trouble properly lighting people of color).

Still from "Race"

All of this is particularly disappointing because there’s so much of Race that actually does work, in spite of everything else. Stephan James – so wonderful as John Lewis in Selma – is aces as Owens, particularly in the early scenes of discomfort on the Ohio State University campus, where he wrenchingly conveys the everyday tension and nervousness of feeling all those eyes on him, all day, every day. Sudeikis impresses as Coach Snyder, finding the rough edges of his stock character, putting the same tight spin on a dramatic line that he can on a comic one (and thus digging out the emotional truth from under it). And Hopkins finds the right note for the scenes of Owens on the field, capturing the velocity, the split-second intensity of these events, and the overwhelming majesty of being in that Olympic coliseum, at that moment.

But he can’t make up for the considerable flaws elsewhere in the picture. Race feels, much of the time, like a missed opportunity, and that’s a shame. It’s an important story about a groundbreaking African American, and it’s disappointing to see it reframed, by its (white) director and (white) screenwriters, as a film that’s just as much about the white people around him. (And let’s not even get into their odd kindness towards the Nazi propagandist, hew boy.) We’ve talked a lot, especially lately, about the woefully meager opportunities for filmmakers of color in prestige projects, and have seen how easy it is for the industry’s powers-that-be to dismiss such talk as oversimplification. But keep this in mind: tasked with finding the right filmmaker to tell Jesse Owens’ story, the makers of Race landed on the guy who made Lost in Space, and congratulated themselves on a job well done.

Race is out today in wide release.