Movie Review: RACE (2016) Directed by Stephen Hopkins

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raceRACE (Germany/France/Canada 2016) ***
Directed by Stephen Hopkins

Stars: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Eli Goree, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt

Review by Gilbert Seah

The word RACE of the film title could mean the running competition or a people of the world. Stephen Hopkin’s biographical sports drama tells both the story of African American athlete Jesse Owens (Stephan James) running in the Berlin Olympic games in 1936 and the controversy ensuing with the then upcoming Hitler regime. Owens went on to win 4 gold medals. Hopkins is no stranger to biography, having directed THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS.

The script, written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, covers many stories. The first and foremost is the story of the athlete Owens and his white coach Larry Snyder. The other is the romance between Owens and his girl, Peggy (Amanda Crew), who he has already had a daughter with, when going to the games. A political subplot involving the boycotting of the Games by the U.S. due to Germany’s racial policy of exclusion of blacks and Jews makes good interest into an otherwise too often told tale of underdog achieving the top prize. This story pits Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) against host of adversaries. Despite the many stories, director Hopkins always has the main story in focus, the winning of the games, while keeping the other side stories in perspective. The overall feel is a solid narrative.

Newcomer Stephan James inhabits the role of the star athlete very comfortably. He looks young as well as buff enough to pass off as an Olympic medallist. He is convincing without having to overact his role. But it is the supporting cast that deliver the prized performances. Carice van Houten steals the show as German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, commissioned by the Hitler to film the games. She runs head to head with the Interior Minister, Dr. Joseph Goebbels (played with sinister relish by Barnaby Metschurat). One could watch both van Houten and Metschurat, two German acorn forever.

The period piece was sot in both Berlin where the Games took place as well as Montreal to stand in for spots of Berlin. The atmosphere of 30’s Europe is satisfactorily convincing, but not over-stunning. The shot of the Games are excitingly executed with camera intercutting among the faces of the athletes, the looks on the faces of the coaches and of course, the spectators.

It is odd that this piece of anti-racism is a co-production between Germany and Canada. One would have expected the film, supported by the by the Owens family, the Jesse Owens Foundation, the Jesse Owens Trust and the Luminary Group to have some American financial backing.

Hopkins plays his film safe without trodding into too deep waters. The racial controversy is tackled with tact and quickly covered for. The result is a rather mild anti-racist film, that is more suited for the family than one to invoke controversy.

The film ends with the pictures of the real characters against the actors that played them. Again, formulaic safe filmmaking, like a history lesson that disturbs no one and stirs no still waters!

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