Movie Review – Race (2015)
I just reviewed a movie, Game Face, that detailed the life of a black athlete in college. While the obvious focus was that athlete’s efforts toward his particular sport, something is lost and a person’s worth is minimized when his athletic side is the only or sole focus. For example, at no point did we learn what the black athlete in college was studying in said college. We never learned what his major was in said college, or if he had any other interests academically, which is a depiction that is troublesome.
In John Singleton’s Higher Learning (1995), Omar Epps plays Malik Williams, an African-American, track star who is called out for not focusing on his academics. Malik doesn’t like being valued only for what he can do on the field, saying at one point, “I ain’t no dumb athlete.” Once he becomes emboldened to resist the label and stereotype that black men are only good for their bodies and not their minds, a stereotype that goes back to slavery, Malik lashes out at other track stars like one played by Morris Chestnut. Chestnut’s character criticizes Malik for losing interest in college athletics and Malik fires back saying that Chestnut’s character is condemned only to be good at running track-and-field and nothing else “like a horse.” It’s an obvious insult to compare a man to an animal that’s only useful for being able to move its legs quickly and not its intelligence.
Singleton’s film was in a way trying to resist that insult and that stereotype, which again have been on black men going all the way back to slavery. Black men weren’t seen as human but as animals, literal work-horses. Singleton made the brilliant connection that college athletics were also putting black men into that work-horse category. The unreleased documentary The Business of Amateurs by Bob DeMars details this exploitation of NCAA athletes.
Directed by Emmy-winner Stephen Hopkins (The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and 24), and written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, this film doesn’t seem to resist that insult and stereotype that Singleton addressed head-on and surpassed. Unfortunately, this film reinforces that awful insult and stereotype. This film promotes it in fact.
Stephan James (Selma and When the Game Stands Tall) plays Jesse Owens, the real-life, African-American track star who won four, gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, instantly making him one of the greatest athletes of the century. In one scene, Jesse talks to his wife, Ruth Solomon, played by Shanice Banton (Degrassi: The Next Generation), and she says to him, “Thinking is not what you’re good at.” She then follows by saying that running is what he’s good at doing, so he should only do that.
Immediately, my mind went to that Singleton film, as Ruth’s words echoed Malik’s words. Ruth didn’t call Jesse a horse but she might as well have. Malik’s words were meant as an insult and taken as one. Ruth’s words weren’t meant as an insult, but they still have the same effect of telling a black man that the only thing he’s good for is his athletics and not his academics. His physical prowess is his chief and only value, not his mental prowess.
Therefore, this film reinforces the same stereotype. It could have at least balanced it out with depictions of Jesse who attends Ohio State University being in class and taking some interest in his schoolwork. Unfortunately, the only scenes of Jesse in college are scenes of him in the locker room or his coach’s office. I understand that at the Berlin Olympics, Jesse Owens’ presence and accomplishments crushed the myth from Adolf Hitler and the Nazis that the Aryan race was superior in every way including physically, but there was more to Jesse then just his amazing body.
This is not to take away from Stephan James who nails the physicality. The first full shot of him is shirtless showing off his superb, muscular form. From an acting standpoint, James delivers what is asked of him. Yet, what’s asked of him isn’t much, beyond running and jumping. James can make himself buff, but that’s apparently easy for all male actors to do. It paves the way for him to be an action star or a comic book hero where the only thing he needs is a ripped physique, but he’s not afforded much in the way of acting range.
Jeremy Irons (Dead Ringers and Die Hard: With a Vengeance) who plays Avery Brundage, one of the executives or top officials with the Olympic Committee, dominates the rest of the film and is perhaps given just as much, if not more arc-worthy material.
It’s through Avery that interesting and relevant parallels are made to today’s world. The Olympic Committee had to decide if it was going to boycott the 1936 Summer Olympics, due to the fact that the games were to be held in Germany while the Nazi government was in power and had an extreme anti-Semitic policy. This parallels today’s world because the last IOC event was the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. People talked about boycotting, due to the fact that those games were to be held in Russia while the Moscow government had an extreme anti-gay policy.
When Hopkins gets to the 1936 Olympics and delves into them, it’s particularly resonant, as even within the context of the film, the discrimination isn’t simply about the bigotry and oppression of black people. Because Hopkins spends more time at the Olympics and resonates it so well, it immediately becomes a better depiction than in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken (2014).
That being said, Schrapnel and Waterhouse’s screenplay doesn’t make space for us to get to know the fellas about whom the discrimination is centered. Giacomo Gianniotti plays Sam Stoller and Jeremy Ferdman plays Marty Glickman. Both Sam and Marty were members of the U.S. track team in Berlin but they were discriminated against because they were Jewish. Unfortunately, aside from being Jewish, the script never gives us anything substantial about them or builds a substantial relationship between them and Jesse.
The actors, Stoller and Ferdman, basically have to convey so much with just a couple of lines and a look. They do a good enough job, but the filmmakers should have given them more. Real estate could have been taken from Jason Sudeikis who plays Larry Snyder, the aforementioned coach from Ohio State. A scene of him finding a pair of shoes wasn’t vital or that necessary. So much attention paid to the coach-athlete bond is cliche and has been done better in a hundred prior sports film, so less Sudeikis and more Stoller and Ferdman was my preference.
I did appreciate seeing David Kross as Carl Long aka “Luz.” Kross first impressed in the Oscar-nominated film The Reader. I believed him to be a young German actor with a lot of potential. He was well used here.
Two Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 14 mins.