‘For a biopic of a legendary black sporting hero, there’s an awful lot of pasty faces’ – MacDara Conroy on the Jesse Owens story Race
There’s been quite the hubbub online (I mean, where else?) regarding the remake of slavery-era drama Roots, which began airing in the US earlier this week. You’ve got your usual arguments about ‘reboot culture’ and the dearth of originality in contemporary film and TV, which dismisses the possibility that this new version of Roots might be trying to do something different in the wake of Black Lives Matter and the current climate of woke-ness (to mangle a term I probably shouldn’t be using as a mid–30s white man). But worse is the notion among some white people that the new Roots exists – like Black Lives Matter, Lemonade, 12 Years a Slave et al – with a singular purpose: to make them feel guilty for being white. I mean of course they’d think that; the world revolves around them! (The sun shines out of their arses, doesn’t it?)
I bring up Roots not because it’s current (though that probably helps with the SEO, yeah?) but because without having even watched, I can safely assume it says a lot more about America’s enduring problem with racism than Stephen Hopkins’ cinematic melo-dramatisation of the Jesse Owens story (tl;dr version: black athlete makes history winning Olympic gold in Nazi Germany). Race comes with the baggage of an oh-so-clever punning title that telegraphs it’s a movie with a message with as much subtlety as a punch in the nose. It’s a message that becomes increasingly muddled and tone-deaf as the story bounces between historical drama and adventure yarn. And it’s not the message we need to hear today.
For a biopic of a legendary black sporting hero, there’s an awful lot of pasty faces, and that hoary old trope of the ‘white saviour’ myth looms insidiously large. What does it say, for instance, by having a young Jesse Owens (Stephan James) essentially replace his own father (a brief but magnetically taciturn performance by Andrew Moodie) with Jason Sudeikis’ conveniently colour-blind athletics coach Larry Snyder? The latter’s is a decent turn, and he carries a hat well, but the role only underscores how much Race goes out of its way to make white people a lot more comfortable than they should be. (It plays down the cold fact that Owens’ success at the 1936 Olympics was not recognised by his own president, as it plays up domestic sentiment and solidarity with the plight of Europe’s Jews in the pre-war years. Neither is a good look.)
Race stumbles at almost every hurdle, from the uninspired story to its bland, sepia-tinted view of the 1930s Midwest. It doesn’t get much better when the action finally moves to Berlin – after so much teasing and plot digression, in particular Olympic envoy Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and his encounters with the cartoonishly evil Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) – and the story becomes one man’s symbolic battle against the forces of evil, with the help of a lot of white folk, Americans and Germans alike. Indeed, in an age where racism was fully institutionalised (not something the film completely ignores, it must be added) it’s strange that there are so few racists about, and so many bleeding hearts. It’s also yet another whitewash of Leni Riefenstahl (great work by Carice van Houten aside) who’s just a poor filmmaker trying to make Art with a capital A and not at all a propagandist fully signed up to glorify the triumph of the Nazis.
In the last half hour, though, something clicks and Race runs out of the blocks. A mirror of the technical mastery in Riefenstahl’s groundbreaking Olympia, it begins with a dizzying tracking shot that revolves around Owens as he enters the lion’s den of the Olympic stadium. The masses a blur, it’s just him and the track, and James – who’s grown into the role at this point, if not quite a star-making performance – handles the pressure as the film finally allows the nail-biting tension of competition, regardless of whether or not you know the result, to draw you to the edge of your seat. It’s not saddled with the burden of all that hamfisted socio-politico-cultural dabbling; it does all its talking on the running track, and in the long jump pit. The preceding 90 minutes can’t be helped – Race is no winner by any means – but there’s a spark of something special here worth scouting.