I know that Hollywood loves movies — how else do you explain Argo‘s win — but do we really need to rehabilitate Leni Riefenstahl, of all people? Especially in a movie that’s supposed to be about Jesse Owens, with the on-the-nose title Race.
Of course, as is all too often the case in this kind of film, it ends up less about the black man at the center, and more about the white people around him. The only real character development given to Owens himself (Stephan James) involves his flirtation with a socialite that threatens his relationship with Minnie Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton). There’s also some hints at issues with his father’s respect, but those barely surface.
No, instead there’s a lot of time spent on Owens’ coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), as he makes the journey from Well-Meaning But Doesn’t Get It white guy to truly One Of The Good Ones. The one shining moment is when Snyder tells Owens he doesn’t care about all the political ramifications around whether or not to compete in the 1936 Olympics, given that Nazi Berlin is the host. Owens peels back his coach’s unexamined privilege, telling him, “you’re white; you don’t have to!”
Except, well, Oxbridge-educated writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse seem to have learned the language of privilege, but little else. They, like Snyder, are exceedingly white; they don’t have to examine the politics either; and aside from a few halfhearted gestures, they don’t. Blinded by the facts on the ground, they offer us the 2016 version of 1936 history. The Nazi regime is seen today for the evil it was, but not every American in the ’30s agreed. One laugh line comes when someone asks American Olympic Committee representative Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) if he’s really going to trust a Nazi, knowing the obvious answer would be negative. Except the real Brundage collaborated with the Nazi regime, and wasn’t set nearly so straight after 1936 as the movie’s version is.
No, there’s no real in-depth discussion of whether America should or shouldn’t participate in the Berlin Games. The fact is that we did participate — or else this movie wouldn’t exist in the first place — and so the rhetoric takes it as a foregone conclusion, without really digging into the opposite side. Going through the motions of the discussion rather than simply commenting on the decision takes a lot of time away from the man who’s supposed to be at the center of this story.
Then, once the decision has been made, there’s a parallel failure to examine the particular arguments for and against Owens’ personal participation. Again, the fact is that he did run in the Olympics — or else this movie wouldn’t exist in the first place — and again the rhetoric takes his decision as mostly a foregone conclusion. He makes some motions about not going, but nobody ever really discusses what the ups and downs are besides “but you’ve just gotta compete at the highest levels or you’ll regret it the rest of your life!” I’m not saying that he made the wrong decision, but the voices counseling him to stay home were not as simple and benighted as Shrapnel and Waterhouse make them out to be.
And then there’s Leni Riefenstahl. Yes, she was shooting the documentary Olympia, about the preparations for the Games, along with the competitions, in which she featured Owens’ performance prominently. There’s certainly a story to be told about her as a filmmaker, including all the advancements she made in cinematic language and technique. But I cannot get behind casting the director of Triumph of the Will as a sympathetic figure in a story about Black civil rights. What’s next? D.W. Griffith supporting labor rights in the production of Of Mice and Men?
I can understand why two British writers and Australian-British director Stephen Hopkins might care more about the German angle to this story, but if they wanted to make a movie about the 1936 Games they should have just stuck to that. Building a story around Jesse Owens and then spending most of their time on the white people around him makes clear what they really think is important.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.