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Thursday, February 18, 2016

RACE and Hollywood's White Savior Problem

Apparently the only way Hollywood can have an unknown black actor play a renowned real-life person on the big screen is to have a relatively white character upstage him in his own story. Such is the case of RACE, the new film that follows track and field Olympian Jesse Owens's at the height of his career.

At first, I was thrilled to learn that Stephan James, perhaps most known to many for his small role as John Lewis in Selma, was getting a chance to play an iconic character in his own film. I was surprised, since Hollywood rarely gives opportunities to lesser known actors of color (especially roles that are as high profile as this); they barely cast seasoned actors of color in roles. But somehow they managed to usurp the usual bigotry of Hollywood to helm a major motion picture that featured a young black man as a hero. Bravo, Hollywood. One step forward.

Yet, one giant step behind. Sure, James is essentially the star here (I think). But Jason Sudeikis, who plays Owens's coach Larry Snyder who gave Owens his first big break, sure has a whole lot of screen time for someone who should really be supporting James. From his locker room rants to his sympathetic revelations of a career and marriage lost, it was Snyder who was made to look like the underdog in the movie--despite the fact that Owens has to deal with being a talented black man in a sport that takes as much pride in its racism as it does its athletics. And this is in the 1930s, before the Civil Rights Movement.

RACE doesn't exactly hide the racial unrest of the era it's depicting, but it definitely feels more sanitized than you'd expect--complete with a subplot highlighting the friendship between Owens and Luz Long, his German competitor during the 1936 Olympics. The script, from screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (who also penned the atrocious Frankie & Alice), is very generic, safe. It doesn't make Owens's victorious story a compelling one. In fact, it often seems like the action is happening around Owens, and not involving him. Aside from his relationship with his wife and daughter (seen mostly in passing scenes), the most interesting parts of the film are the negotiations over the possible boycott of the Berlin Games, just before the rise of the Nazi government--which almost seem like a separate movie because Owens's relation to it isn't always clear.

Ironically, since it is believed that Owens came to Adolf Hitler's defense when it was widely reported that Hitler, who was the Chancellor and Führer of the 1936 Olympics, refused to congratulate him due to his Aryan supremacy--something still deemed controversial today (and told very differently in the film). 

At its best, RACE celebrates the story of an American hero--a story we definitely need right now in cinema. And it introduces audiences to James in what could have been a career-making performance had it been more finely written. But the film is woefully disjointed, frustratingly removed from its lead character, and overly sanitized.

Rating: C (** out of *****)

RACE is in theaters nationwide February 19. 


Dell said...

I was afraid this might be the case. Sounds like a lesser, even more watered down version of 42. Great review.

Ashlee Blackwell said...

Great review, Candice! Sad to say, I'm not surprised.

Brittani Burnham said...

This doesn't shock me at all. That's a shame this wasn't better.

Karen said...

Good review! After watching Selma, and how Ava DuVernay directed MLK's story in a way that gave him realness and depth, it's tough to watch sanitized versions of black historical figures when you know there are black filmmakers & screenwriters who could do a more artful adaptation.

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