Concussion, a 2015 film, was made to be an Awards contender. Biopic? About a controversial subject? A mainstream actor being serious? That would win in most years, However, after mixed reviews, Concussion was overshadowed completely with the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, a social media riot that pointed out that there were no actors of color in the Oscar nominees for the second year in a row. Suddenly, Concussion was brought back into the conversation, as it was cited with other “black films” that should have had nominations. Was Concussion snubbed? Meanwhile this year, Race, a biopic about Jesse Owens that has a lot of the above Oscar checklists, has already been forgotten about. Yet with diversity reforms in the Academy, will Race get a chance? Does it deserve one?
Concussion tells the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, an immigrant doctor from Nigeria who was the first to discover the effects of CTE in the NFL. Dr. Omalu is played by Will Smith, who is phenomenal in the role, so much so that I forgot he was Will Smith. His accent was consistent, he was subtle when he had to be, dramatic when need-be. The only flaw in the character is from the writing. Dr. Omalu is portrayed as perfect, a more American hero than Captain America. He never gives up, he always tells the truth, and he deals with abuse graciously and with integrity. He is the definition of inspiring, and that’s what makes the movie just a tad underwhelming.
The information in this film is very important. It’s not fun, but I think everyone needs to know about the effects of CTE and its consequences. However, the movie lacks the grit it needs. It has moments, it has scenes of greatness. But overall, the film doesn’t quite “go there,” making it seem like the filmmakers themselves don’t believe this is mandatory viewing.
Concussion is still a compelling movie, though. The heart of the film is the love story between Dr. Omalu and his wife Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and the doctor’s faith. Dr. Omalu’s faith in God is never ridiculed by the movie and is shown to be his main source of strength, which is a really nice thing to see in a film.
Race is the story of Jesse Owen’s journey to the 1936 Olympics, held in Pre-WW2 Berlin. The film starts with Jesse Owens (Stephen James) in college, training under Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis). In biopic fashion, Jesse finds a not-racist coach who becomes a mentor figure and guides him towards greatness. In biopic fashion, he overcomes all odds to become a great athlete and awes the world in the Olympics. In biopic fashion… well, everything kinda happens in biopic fashion.
Race is very by-the-books. It reminded me of the 2013 film 42, starring Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. 42 is a fantastic movie, and I think Race could learn a few things from that film.
42 never shies away from the fact that racism was a daily struggle for Jackie Robinson. Race shows racism, but in a way that makes you feel angry, but never uncomfortable, which is something 42 makes sure to make you feel. Race rarely gets into the head of Jesse Owens. When it does, it’s great, and it’s a shame because there was potential there. 42 gets into the head of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey.
What I do admire about Race, though, is that it helped me understand why the Olympics and sports are so important. I’m not a sports person. I like the Olympics, but I’ve never understood quite why an athlete would dedicate their entire lives to spending mere minutes on the field. Race showed me the drive in athletes, what it means to them, and the politics behind the Olympics. I’m very glad it did, so as we gear up for the 2016 Brazil Olympics, I can be more appreciative of the event.
Race is well meaning, earnest, and a solid movie. But that isn’t enough. Race needs more to make it feel less like a really good TV movie and more like an important film everyone should see.
Now I’d like to address my initial questions. Are these Oscar-y films worth the attention of the academy? Personally, I think that if Matt Damon is going to be nominated for being an astronaut potato farmer, I think Will Smith should be nominated, too. I don’t think either film deserves anything more, though, as awards go.
Here is an interesting observation, though, that I’ve heard other places. Oscar bait movies about black people are almost exclusively about slavery or racism. Even this year’s most talked-about (but way too early to forecast) awards contender, The Birth of A Nation, is about slavery. Should #OscarsSoWhite really be about just having more black talent on screen (and we won’t even get into the discussion of how there has been an exclusion of other races. The 2016 Oscars were only about black actors, even making jokes at the expense of Asians)? Or should this discussion really be about making films about people of color the way films are made about white people? Last year, white actors were nominated for everything from being a pioneer, to being a transgender woman, and white actresses for being a shopkeeping girl to being an immigrant, while the last time a black actor was nominated and won was for playing a slave.
In the light of new diversity reforms, will a mediocre film get chosen simply because it’s “diverse?” Will movies like Race have a chance now? Because I think we should start holding all movies, “diverse” or not, to a higher standard, and include all people in those better movies. Would it have changed The Martian to have a black lead? Would it have killed Mad Max to have a Latina woman as Furiosa?
My point is, make films with diverse talent that isn’t just about slavery. Don’t forget about other races too, or we’ll have a #OscarsSoZebra. Don’t stop making quality films, including biopics and slavery films, but don’t assume they’ll win, and don’t assume they are the only place to use minority talent. And if you are going to make diversity reforms, get to the heart of the problem, and not the shallow stuff. This topic is super complex, and I haven’t even scratched the surface. I’m not the most qualified person to do so. But when I see a person on screen that I relate to strongly and feel connected to, that makes a world of difference. And I’m a white teenage girl, an audience that is being catered to more and more every day. I can’t imagine what it would be like to only see a person like yourself portrayed as a trope or token exclusively.
I hope one day I’ll be able to review films with minority leads without mentioning race (except if it’s in the title), but right now I have to, and we have to address it. I applaud these movies for not shying away from it either in their respective subjects, and I applaud all the filmmakers, black, Asian, Hispanic, white, male, or female- anyone who is trying to reflect the real world on screen.