Recently, Don Cheadle revealed how the addition of a fictional White male character, a Rolling Stone reporter played by Ewan McGregor in his highly anticipated Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, ultimately helped the decade-in-the-making film get made. Having a prominently featured White male character, albeit a completely fictionalized white male character in a movie about a real-life, controversial, unapologetically Black musical icon, proved to be a “financial imperative,” according to Cheadle, who co-wrote and directed the film. This speaks volumes of an industry that would rather hold steadfast to the belief that Black films or films with Black leads don’t sell well than to see Cheadle’s “explosive” vision come to life. It’s a vision that sought to mimic Davis’s complicated story, domestic violence and all, and the feeling Cheadle gets when he listens to the legend’s music. Instead, Cheadle had to adapt the script in a drastic way to get the movie made.
That technique is not at all uncommon. In fact, it takes center stage in Race, the first major motion picture to focus on track and field Olympic gold-winning athlete Jesse Owens, one of the most decorated and celebrated athletes of all time. Actor Stephan James, whose real-life hero depiction game is strong (he also played John Lewis in Selma), delivered a heartfelt and compelling portrayal of the decorated athlete, despite the film’s limitations.
One of those glaring limitations is the fact that in his own movie, Owens plays second fiddle to Larry Snyder, his Ohio State University coach whose own Olympic dreams were squashed after he injured himself in a solo flight crash. Early on in the film, Snyder tells Owens, who was a decorated, record-setting athlete in high school, that he doesn’t believe in athletes with natural talent. He doesn’t believe that talent alone will get Owens to the 1936 Olympic games. It will take hard work, incessant training and, of course, the help of Snyder, whose character closely encroaches on White Savior territory in the film.
The film only focuses on a short period of Owens’s life, and the unnecessary reveal of Snyder’s own story takes away from opportunities to delve further into Owens’s personal life – the relationship he had with his family, for example. Notably, his father, who in the film is portrayed as a broken shell of a man who couldn’t find work. What about the life and family he built with his fiancé turned wife? Their relationship is portrayed in the film, but, like most of the diegesis, it’s a tame, cookie-cutter representation, coming in second to his relationship with Snyder.
Owens also came in second place with the U.S. Olympic Committee. Race took on the additional challenge of sharing the story that the Committee faced at the time – determining whether the United States should participate in the Berlin games at all due to Hitler’s rising power and the Nazi regime. We even got in on German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and her quest to document the games with her propagandist film. Ultimately, Race tries to tackle too much and often loses Owens in his own story, rendering him a mere backdrop to historical and fictionalized events. And while the title of the film has multiple meanings, it should really have focused on one: Jesse Owens. Ultimately, Race was at its best when it showed Owens on the field, doing what he did best.
But this reading is further complicated by the film’s co-writer, Anna Waterhouse. In a 2014 interview with the Guardian, Waterhouse said, when asked whether the film industry needs to take more steps to cultivate a diverse field of women writers, directors, etc., “I don’t believe in positive discrimination. It might be naive, but I feel if you have drive, ambition, talent and some luck then you’ll succeed regardless of your gender.” Waterhouse clearly specifies gender in the interview, but that naïve thinking ignores data that reveals Hollywood’s invisibility factor when it comes to both gender and race. It’s that naïve thinking that rendered – I’ll use the words again – a tame and cookie-cutter film about a man who was anything but.
The fact that a lot of films that feature Black characters, real or not, are not written by Black screenwriters or writers of color is not lost on me. So after reading Waterhouse’s interview and seeing Race, I can’t help but wonder what this film would have looked like in the hands of someone who took race into account in a less watered down, generic way. A writer who saw Jesse Owens as the central and most important character in what I thought was his own film. A writer who understands the importance of inclusion and representation; who understands that opportunities don’t always exist, nor is success guaranteed because you have drive, ambition, and talent. A writer who knows that struggle personally and could have translated it into script form. A writer who knows the importance of telling our stories.
It’s clear that in Hollywood, an industry being investigated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an industry that is overwhelmingly White and male by design, an industry still prone to whitewashing, all the drive, ambition and talent in the world aren’t always enough. One of the few times Race exemplified that is when Owens returned home after winning four gold medals and had to use the back door to enter an event held in his honor. With that scene in mind, it’s interesting to see Owens even having to take a backseat in his own biopic.