Although it was obviously a wise financial choice for John Boyega to drop out of playing Jesse Owens in order to play Finn in “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens,” I’d rather re-watch “Race” than Episode VII any day.
And thank goodness for “Race” too, as I can’t see anyone but Stephan James playing that role, now. He seems to possess the perfect combination of confidence and modesty needed to portray such a complicated character over such a span of time and circumstances.
We meet a young J. C. “Jesse” Owens as he’s a young man trying to make a name for himself, so that he can properly marry Ruth (Shanice Banton) the mother of his baby girl. He’s the first of his family to go to college, and even though this is an achievement in and of itself, he still can’t bring himself to look his coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis in his first dramatic role) in the eye upon meeting him. This is America in the `30s, after all, and Owens knows full well his place in society. He further keeps his mouth shut when fellow students point and stare at him and worse. He’s too smart to let them spoil his chances.
He’s well on his way to becoming an Olympic athlete, and considering the upcoming 1936 games are to be held in Hitler’s Berlin, he may be able to give his country – maybe even the world – a sorely needed lesson about race.
For the Nazis, the Olympic Games were supposed to be a platform from which to launch a worldwide publicity stunt – to prove once and for all the supremacy of the Aryan race – especially over blacks. Hitler himself criticized America in particular for including black athletes on its Olympic roster, and he famously refused to congratulate Owens on his Olympic Gold, as was the custom. Then again, President Franklin D. Roosevelt also failed to congratulate Owens for his unprecedented four Gold medal wins upon his return to the states.
And the double meaning of the title permeates “Race”, with at least four simultaneous storylines. Obviously, there’s the race for Olympic Gold, and the competition between athletes alone would make for a good sorts-flick. But the Olympics is also politics, especially in 1936, when the United States almost boycotted the games over Hitler’s policies and war-mongering. The politics over whether or not the US should compete, and further whether or not Owens himself should compete once the States decided to take part both mirror and feed off of each other. Either decision could not have been an easy one.
Then Hitler’s plans to make a film of the games is also part of this film. Director Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) is tasked with creating the quintessential propaganda film, while constantly running afoul of Joseph Goebbels (a sinister Barnaby Metschurat) when the games turn decidedly against them. She wants to film the drama on the ground, the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” while Goebbels simply wants the marketing movie he was looking for.
And all of this plays against the second nature of the title, race relations. Sadly, many of the obstacles Owens overcame are still in place today. No, maybe not the blacks-only entrances he returned home to and was still forced to use even after his Olympic wins, but much of the blacks as second class that causes a Flint, Michigan.
While not wallowing in these elements, “race” doesn’t shy away from them either. Similarly, although it shows an errant Owens – flush with fame and attention – get involved with some sexual dalliances while on the road, the film focuses instead on his redemption and success after such unwise detours. The final act (which includes actual footage and slates depicting Owens’ life after the Games) is a satisfying cap to a film that basically juggled everything well, even with all of those balls in the air. And keeping it well under the PG-13 bar means that you can bring the family and not only be inspired by the courage of a single citizen, but explore the problems within a whole country. It’s a good time at the movies, and good place to start a conversation.
Rich’s Grade: A-
TRT: 134 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Writers: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse
Starring: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Eli Goree, Shanice Banton, Carice van Houten, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt
Earns an endorsement from The Satanic Temple!
So many horror films these days are by the numbers garbage that I feel I don’t get paid enough to sit through them. No so with “The Witch”, written and directed by Robert Eggers, who is largely known as a production and costume designer. No matter; he knows his stuff. So say I and The Satanic Temple which has endorsed “The Witch,” and hosted screenings of the film. Their spokesperson, Jex Blackmore, called the film "an impressive presentation of Satanic insight that will inform contemporary discussion of religious experience."
I don’t know any of that, but just as “The Martian” was sci-fi done right, “The Witch” is horror done right. And yes, these many accolades and critical praises may get butts in seats, but I don’t think the film is going to satisfy the usual crowd who think 90 minutes of jump-scares is terrifying. No, this is a lot cleverer than that.
Set in the early 1600’s, decades before the infamous Salem Witch Trials, “The Witch” centers around a Puritan family from old England trying to make a go of it in New England.
Their troubles may have begun long before the commando-Puritanism of family patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) gets the whole family booted from a small village, a veritable oasis in an unyielding new frontier. They eventually try their hand at settling a small patch of land near a dense wood, but sadly, as bad as William is at fitting in with his own ilk, he’s even worse at hunting and farming. Crops dry up, his traps are usually empty, and his family is getting on each other’s nerves…
Which is easy to do, considering the conditions under which they live. Eggers went to tremendous amount of trouble realistically depicting how dreary life must have been back then. This attention to detail even informs the accents used by the actors, which admittedly make for a studied listen. I really, REALLY had to pay attention to what these folks were saying to catch it all, and even then I’m convinced I missed some.
Thankfully much of what you need to know is presented through the amazing atmosphere of repressiveness that bathes the movie. Eggers must have spent some time and money on the soundtrack alone, often building to a climax that pulls you to the edge of your seat, taking full advantage of discordant wails and other-worldly sounds. Nebulous imagery largely allows your imagination fill in the blanks, but sometimes only a truly disturbing image will drive a point home.
Combine such attention to every dreary detail of such desperate times with the repressive nature of early Puritanical faith, and you’ve got yourself a simmering stew set to boil over. Much like the foreshadowed Witch Trials, this creates an atmosphere in which any accusation is taken seriously. Whenever a crop fails it’s seen as celestial payback for someone’s sin.
And sadly, everyone believes they are so deserving of punishment. William’s long-suffering wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) aches to pack it in and just go back to old England. Eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), envisions a joyless life ahead of herself, as cold and grey as the New England skies. Younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is in on the verge of manhood; but with limited options around, he can’t help but notice the curves of his older sister who is already a young woman. This is just more fuel for the fire of guilt and shame that scalds him with every daily prayer. And young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are just plain annoying; too young and coddled to be of any real use on the farm. And they’re creepy too, which doesn’t help.
Making matters worse, of course, is the very real witch who lives in the nearby wood. Even here, the everyday life of these folks matters, allowing one to understand why someone – especially a woman - would choose a life of witchcraft over the never-ending uphill slog. But here too, Eggers succeeds in bringing witchcraft back to its basics, eschewing most over-the-top Hollywood depictions.
Other than some unfortunate (and I’m betting unintentional) Monty Python references that lighten the mood at just the wrong times, “The Witch” earns its various endorsements.
RICH’S GRADE: A-
Rated R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity
Director: Robert Eggers
Writer: Robert Eggers
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie