Thursday, February 18, 2016
Stephen Hopkins's Race is a complication-smoothing take on Jesse Owens's elegant riposte to Hitler's racism at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where the legendary track star won four gold medals. The film's hackneyed mode of storytelling is evident as soon as Owens (Stephan James) is seen heading off to college, with the expository dialogue suggesting bullet points accumulating on a PowerPoint presentation. In quick succession, the audience is informed that Owens is so poor that he has only one shirt, that his mother is sure he's destined for greatness, that he's the first in his family to go to college, and that he helps support not just his unemployed father, Henry (Andrew Moodie), but his young daughter, Gloria (Kayla Stewart), and her mother, Ruth (Shanice Banton), who he plans to marry as soon as he can afford to.
As Owens begins to set new records at Ohio State and train for the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee decides whether the U.S. should boycott a competition that Hitler intends as a showcase for Nazi ideology and technology. Throughout, Race spells out its drama in block letters, dialogue hitting every major theme and minor conflict, music swelling under each dramatic moment, and the camera lingering over a person's name in a newspaper headline. The characters all look about twice as glamorous as their real-life counterparts, and almost all—including Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), a Nazi propagandist portrayed as a gallant artist making an honest attempt to capture a golden moment—are defined by just one or two traits, which are established early and reinforced often.
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