The Jesse Owens biopic Race is a polite movie about an ugly time
It’s impossible in 2016 to watch a movie like Race without considering what it means in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, when even the Super Bowl halftime show can spark race-driven protests. But the film’s racial agenda couldn’t be more placatory and safe. In a key scene, OSU’s all-white football team barks racist invective at the track team, and Owens and his friends are distracted, frustrated, and demoralized. So Snyder deliberately keeps his trainees in the locker room as the football team comes in, and as the players’ hateful protests become increasingly shrill, he lectures the runners on how to shut out the noise. It’s one of Hopkins’ more technically creative scenes: the football team’s hatred eventually flattens into ignorable background noise, and then into polite silence. It’s a nice trick, but a suspect message: just ignore racism and racist attacks, and they’ll go away, leaving you to achieve your dreams in peace. If only the world were that simple.
“It’s a suspect message: just ignore racism, and it will go away”
Race reaches for the same message on a grander scale, as Owens quietly puts his head down and ignores the head-butting between America and Germany over the latter’s increasingly fascist policies, the round-up and erasure of Jewish citizens, and the attempts to push non-white, non-Protestant competitors out of the Olympics. He goes on to break records and win glory by simply not hearing what’s being said about him. There are tremendous moments in Race, the kind of moments that play well in Oscar clips and make viewers feel good about themselves, their country, and the world. But for all its powerful moments and daring simply in bringing another black hero’s story to the screen, Race could stand to be rougher around the edges, and more confrontational in its message. It’s a polite form of history that makes pretty pictures out of an ugly situation.#cinéma