Sports films are a hit-or-miss affair. American football, rugby and boxing films often do well at the box office because they are naturally exciting to watch. Films involving baseball, golf and running often fail for the opposite reason, although there have been a few exceptions over the years. Let’s first look at some of the winners:
HEAVEN CAN WAIT (football)
THE LONGEST YARD (football)
MILLION DOLLAR BABY (boxing)
RAGING BULL (boxing)
The ROCKY series (boxing)
And the losers:
THE BABE (baseball)
EIGHT MEN OUT (baseball)
THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE (golf)
Finally, here are some exceptions. These films went against the trend and did well at the box office:
BULL DURHAM (baseball)
CHARIOTS OF FIRE (running)
THE HUSTLER (billiards)
TIN CUP (golf)
RACE is a new film about American sprinter James Cleveland (“Jesse”) Owens, who won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. The story begins with Owens (Canadian actor Stephan James, SELMA), heading off to university at Ohio State. While there, his speed on the track caught the attention of coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis, HORRIBLE BOSSES), who immediately knew he had an Olympic contender on his hands. Under Snyder’s guidance, Owens won eight individual NCAA championships, a record that has yet to be broken. His biggest success prior to the Olympics came in a span of 45 seconds at a Big Ten Conference meet in 1935 where he set three world records and tied a fourth. His time of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yard dash held up as the world record until 1948. (Jamaica’s Usain Bolt is the current record holder of the 100-metre dash with the time of 9.58 seconds.)
When the International Olympics Committee awarded the 1936 Games to Germany in 1931, it was intended as a sign of support for the country’s shaky democratic government. However, when Hitler and the Nazis came to power just two years later, many American Olympic Committee leaders questioned whether the USA should participate in the event. Some, like AOC president Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR) advocated a boycott, arguing that their country’s support would be tacit approval of Hitler’s racist policies. Others, like American Athletics Union president Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons, BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE) argued that the Olympics needed to remain free of politics. Even the NAACP got involved in the debate. Once the decision was made for the US to send a team to Berlin, the association’s president visited with Owens to put pressure on the young man to stay home. Owens, though, was not a political person. He just wanted to run, and so he decided to compete in Germany.
While Hitler was hoping the Games would be a showcase for Aryan supremacy, G-d had other ideas. Owens not only won gold in the 100 meters, he also finished first in the 200 meters, the long jump, and the 4×100 meter relay. He was the most successful athlete at the Games, much to the irritation of Hitler and his inner circle. (It was believed for many years that Hitler had refused to meet with Owens following his victories, and the film follows this tack, but evidence has come out in recent years that they did, in fact, meet and shake hands.)
As far as running films go, RACE is probably the second best film of this subgenre… but that’s not a very high accolade given the competition. James does a respectable job showing us a fairly modest guy who had an incredible talent. It’s easy to look at Owens with 2016 eyes and wonder if he made the right choice by allowing himself to be used as a political tool by a bunch of rich white men. On the other hand, if he hadn’t raced, Hitler would have been proven right. It’s sad, though, that Owens didn’t use his subsequent fame to be an advocate for integration and change but, then again, times weren’t what they are now and it was only a few more years before the world would be thrown into chaos.
Sudeikis, for his part, does an adequate job in one of his few dramatic roles to date. Unfortunately, not much is known today about Coach Snyder’s personal life, and Sudeikis has said he took his inspiration for the character from Norman Dale (the character played by Gene Hackman in the 1986 basketball film, HOOSIERS). Sudeikis has said in numerous interviews that Snyder was “colour blind”, as he didn’t see race as an issue. He saw Owens as a runner who could win races and that was it.
Director Stephen Hopkins (PREDATOR 2) has said that RACE is less about running than it is about how skin colour was viewed both in the US and Germany in the 1930s. Indeed, the running scenes only take up a few minutes of the story, while Owens’ relationships with Snyder, his family, his community and his white-dominated world form the bulk of the film. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot there that’s gripping or that we haven’t seen before in numerous other films over the years dealing with racism and discrimination. As a result, while RACE makes it to the finish line, it barely gets there alive. Stephan James’ charm and wholesome looks are what keeps the film from fading out altogether in the home stretch.
RACE is worth seeing if only to learn more about a sports legend and perhaps a reluctant role model. Beyond that, it’s nothing special.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 34:40.)
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