Hollywood seems to pride itself on biopics of historical Black figures. Over the past several years, Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Bessie Smith’s stories have all gotten the film treatment. This year, it’s Olympic Gold medalist and track star Jesse Owens’ turn in the film “Race”.
During the Great Depression and the height of Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany, Owens defied all odds. He was not only the fastest man in the world, but he also became the face of America at the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936. “Race”, which stars “Selma” actor Stephan James, is about Owens’ incredible rise and unprecedented success.
Film studios often get biopics wrong because they present a glossy version of a person’s life. The settings are perfect, and though the story hits all of the major plot points in the figure’s life, they often lack authenticity. Even with a stunning performance by the film’s lead, as was the case with Chadwick Bosemen’s portrayal of James Brown in “Get On Up”, something typically lacking. The audience is left feeling as though they are viewing this person and their trials and tribulations behind a two-way mirror. Their life becomes spectacle, on display for 21st century moviegoers. Rarely does the audience feel as if they are moving through the journey with the character. One of the most recent exceptions was Jamie Foxx’s 2004 performance in “Ray”.
“Race”, while beautifully shot and helmed with some stellar performances, has that filmy layer of fabrication cast over it. The sets are perfectly polished, even the ones set in Great Depression Ohio. Likewise, the acting (while fantastic) does not aid in grounding the audience in the time period.
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Image: Race/Focus Features