So, I was lucky enough to go see the new Jesse Owens movie before most people. This article will be full of “spoilers” unlike my usual review so…enter only ye who do not care. 2nd warning: I mean it’s called “Race” so if you’re the type of person who doesn’t like racial topics or bluntly honest people…just leave now.
Let’s start from the beginning here because the failure of this movie is spectacular in its scope.
1st thing is, Ludacris came to the front of the theater to say a few generic things about Jesse Owens. This struck me as odd, but I figured, maybe he was a producer, or perhaps an actor in the film. Nah, he was just some random guy that happened to be in Atlanta that they paid to speak.
Then the actor who played Jesse came down, fumbled through some off the cuff remarks, thanked everyone for coming and left. The fact that he didn’t know any personal stories about Jesse to share didn’t bode well.
By the way, I know they thought the title “Race” was clever. Oh, it’s about race as in skin color and race as in he’s running oh that’s deep. No, it isn’t, it’s lame, predictable, and lazy. Stop it.
Ok, so the film finally starts. The amount of immediate exposition is almost unfathomable. The Grandmother is speaking to Jesse, she gives a long speech about having to cut out a tumor from baby Jesse’s chest, him going to college, etc. etc. Basically, she tells us who he is EXACTLY, which is necessary because they do approximately zero character development outside of this. Oh, and she literally never speaks again. Ever.
So right off the bat I know the writers are no good. About 30 seconds in I also realize there is absolutely no way anybody black had anything to do with the creative aspects of this film. Sure enough when I finally left and checked out who wrote it, 2 sub-par white writers Joe Shrapnel and Anne Waterhouse. None of their work before this was particularly noteworthy.
My critiques of the writers’ history aren’t insinuating that they aren’t capable of doing amazing work, it’s just that their lack of providing hits shows the lack of care the studios had for this story. If they actually cared they would’ve given it to someone who has proven, at least once, that they can churn out a hit. Indeed the writers they chose failed in this endeavor to create a compelling story.
The director, also, is white which is going to be a running theme here so, you know…
The overall story was bland, predictable, and suffered from far too many white saviors. I counted 7.
1. The coach played by Jason Sudeikis teaches a black man in 1935 how to deal with racism. He is also completely not racist at all and they are “totes besties” by the end of the film (Even though in real life he went on to be an Olympic coach because of Owens while Owens was banned from racing and had to work as a janitor at the school).
2. Olympic Committee member- He does a back door deal with the Nazis but gets all righteously angry when Hitler wouldn’t shake Jesse’s hand after winning. Jesse stands there silently while the OCM gives the Olympic director a tongue lashing and then physically moves Jesse out of the room. Because Jesse is incapable of doing anything for himself. Or showing any emotion. Or…you know, walking out himself.
3 and 4. The Jewish members of the team that they pretty much made the whole 2nd and 3rd act about. Jesse again is waiting for another white person to tell him what to do here. This is only real, overt, catalyzing discrimination shown against anyone in the entire movie was enacted against Jewish people. Which most definitely you must show by all means (I mean it’s the Nazis). However when you’ve ignored anti-black racism as just something you can close your eyes and get over? At a time when anti lynching legislation was still being debated by congress? Completely taking over a black man’s story to tell your own is a big problem here.
5. The German Luz- The story has been embellished in this film. Yet again, Jesse is shown to be unable to perform without the help of a white man. Who is categorically not racist. He tells Jesse that a black man is better off in America than a white man in Germany(because they wanted him to impregnate some girl), to which Jesse is quite simply befuddled as to whether that could be true or not.
6. The woman Nazi filmmaker who is hell bent on telling Jesse’s story and thus, proving the Nazi regime (which she is apart of) false in its racist assumptions.
7. The little white boy- This one needs a little explaining, here goes. At the end of the film Jesse is heading to a dinner in his honor with his wife and coach.
Upon arriving at the hotel’s front door they are told that the “coloreds” will have to go around back. After some righteous white anger from Sudeikis Jesse and his wife calmly acquiesce and head around to the back. A few black people immediately recognize him and speak, Jesse ignores them and goes inside.
Immediately a little white boy runs up to him smiling in dirty clothes (because we have to show that everybody had it bad back then, not just blacks) and asks “Can I have your autograph?” This finally gets a smile out of Owens and he signs the paper for the child. They zoom in for a close up on the child’s (overly) happy face. Then they go to a close up on Jesse’s smiling face….And just like that, overt racism doesn’t matter, going around the back for your own celebration doesn’t matter, not meeting the president as is customary for Olympic Gold winning athletes, doesn’t matter….It wasn’t seeing his fellow black brothers and sisters back there (whom he treated as a kind of peasant fanbase), it was white acceptance. Because remember folks, white acceptance, even from a child, validates black existence.
Honorable mention. All of the white teammates who were just “so excited” that the black athletes were able to stay in the same dorms as them. They literally jumped up and down with glee. Seriously.
Race suffers from the usual issues films about black heroes written by white people face. Jesse himself has no real character, it’s all about creating a world in which, the racism in America (perpetuated by whites) is “ok” or otherwise dismissed because there are SO MANY “good” white people who just don’t “see color.” However this rainbow colored filter they put on the past immediately turns into Owens not being able to do anything for himself. He must rely exclusively on the teachings and actions of white people to either show him the right way or stand up for him because every single racist encounter isn’t about him it’s about showing good white people.
Yet, historically in this time period, we see people being beaten in the streets, hung up in trees, burned, shot, beaten, hoses turned on them…I wonder where those good white people were?
Here’s the thing. They didn’t exist. At least not in any number that makes any difference. The pervasive attitude throughout the country, was that of overt, oppressive, racism. That was the norm, those were the laws on the books. And if you can’t address that reality in a movie TITLED RACE then I literally “can’t even.”
When white people tell these stories they create characters they THINK they would’ve been, but, in reality they’d have been right there tying a banana around a man’s neck.
I’m writing like this because this truth is dirty, it’s gritty, it ain’t pretty at all. But time and time again, and especially in this film it’s portrayed as “oh they called me a name lemme ignore them.” Yay racism is over, thanks for showing us lowly Negroes how to handle systematic oppression, murder, redlining and other atrocities. ‘Preciate that.
Even without the race issues the outright awfulness of this movie is unforgivable.
The scene that was clearly supposed to get Jason Sudeikis an Oscar nod was so absurd people in the theater actually laughed out loud. They really glaze over the fact that the U.S president, Franklin Roosevelt, never invited Owens to the white house as is customary.
This film about a black historical figure was not made for black people. But more so to appease the “white gaze”. They should stop trying to tell our stories since clearly they can’t help but insert themselves into them, completely destroying everything that made the story worth telling in the process.
This film about Jesse Owens deserves better. Straight F’s across the board.
Well, the acting was decent, they did what they could with the terrible script they were given. Half a star. Don’t waste your money on this. It’s destined to be the terrible movie the clueless history teacher rolls in on the TV cart (the one with the Velcro straps) and nobody pays attention to it.
Thanks for reading guys!