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Entertainment Movie Reviews 12 Mar 2016 Race movie review: A ...

Race movie review: A successful interpretation of an athlete’s dream

Published Mar 12, 2016, 1:18 am IST
Updated Mar 12, 2016, 3:43 pm IST
Owens famously acknowledged that he was treated better in Nazi Germany than in the US.
Still from the movie.
 Still from the movie.

Cast: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Eli Goree, Carice van Houten, Barnaby Metschurat
Director: Stephen Hopkins

Inside the most peculiar sequence of the film, an athlete and his coach are framed in a silhouette against the blind of the tunnel that opens into the Olympic stadium — it is the scene which is full of moments (invariably, the music swells up, characters notch down to a whisper, lenses get long, everything has more meaning) — the coach wishes his protégé the best and leaves him alone to face the world.


Director Stephen Hopkins decides to film Jesse Owens’ entry into posterity in a single, uninterrupted take that is choreographed with the ambition to depict his subjective perception (or reception) of the various constituents of this incredible scene: digital composites of anonymous voluminous crowds, training competitors, the press and its devices, Hitler entering the special box to take his seat, the arena that rises in verbal, gestural salute to him, etc.

As a result, the camera charts multiple revolutions around the colossus, assimilating a render of Owens’ vantage point, before finally designing to include his startled face within the shot — coming to rest on it briefly, as if for the night, before taking off again. The elaborate design of the sequence, which provides full weight to the sheer terror and indifference of the moment (these two qualities exist simultaneously also in Hopkins’ best, The Ghost and the Darkness) is unique, for within a film that is otherwise entirely about the body, its possibilities, its stature as an organising principle in modern societies and finally, its accomplishments — it removes the material from the centre of the film and replaces it instead with concepts (scale, history, occasion) and feelings (anxiety, fear, resolve).


Race attempts to depict the events that lead up to and then are contained within Jesse Owens’ legendary usurping of the 1936 Berlin Olympics — one of the greatest sporting stories of the 20th century. It is distilled through a standard American sport-movie template: a young athlete with visible potential assumes tutelage under a once-prodigious, now rundown coach who functions from outside the establishment. The latter knows a secret or a couple that other, more renowned coaches do not: they know what it takes to succeed, he also knows what it takes to fail.


He uses this knowledge to help the disciple arrive at the very limits of his prowess, which he then carries with himself to the grandest sporting arena of them all (the Olympics) to affect a manoeuvre that is, not entirely without conscious intent, an essential sociopolitical declaration. This isn’t entirely novel: sport in cinema is mostly employed to arrange a forum for the discussion of the environment within which it exists. Sports films, at large, allow the audience to assume privileged positions of prophets and oracles, for the results of the sporting encounters themselves are mostly foregone conclusions (this allows them to invest in the protagonist — a confirmed winner, a safe bet — more easily as well and climaxes of the films themselves are delayed, conserved pleasure).


The sporting contest becomes instead an instrument of entropy: it mobilises elements of the world that surround it and make them more visible. In Race, segregation based on race (and hence, the cutesy, first-draft title of the film) becomes the film’s actual subject, with the director pursuing a discourse around it to a logical, bitter end, while the film includes the obvious perpetrators (Goebbels, the Nazis).

The film’s mythical Hitler snubs Owens — even if the actual historical incidence is under dispute its criticism of the American attitudes to race is not absent (they are routinely corrupt, endorse Nazis’ discrimination of the Jewish athletes to garner personal favours and fail to congratulate Owens for his triumph). Owens famously acknowledged that he was treated better in Nazi Germany than in the US.


Hopkins’ film is ultimately a successful interpretation (as one character remarks: “Do you want me to translate or interpret?”) of actual historical event. It manages to resist an overstatement of Owens’ achievement and instead chooses to abandon its sport-film façade and adopt the stance of a period-film, wherein a significant historical event may yield more than one hero. In perhaps one of its most interesting declarations, it includes Leni Riefenstahl in this list — she isn’t merely a sympathetic figure, a liberal-minded filmmaker who must battle even Goebbels for the autonomy of her art, but also understands, as all serious cinephiles do, that if the memory of an event is to be preserved, it must be on film (she says to Owens: “Many years from now, they will know of your brilliance through my film”).


The writer is programmer, Lightcube Film Society