In the film Race, Toronto-born actor Stephan James plays the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history. But, when he was approached about the part, James wasn’t sure exactly who Jesse Owens was.
“When I got that call that they’re making a Jesse Owens biopic I scratched my head a little,” the 22-year-old says.
“He won those gold medals, right? How many did he win again? I didn’t know how many he won or where he won them or under what circumstances or when this all took place.”
He quickly learned about Owens’s early career, the Ohio State races that made him a legend and how an African American runner stared down Hitler by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
“After reading the script and researching his life to find out the backstory I was literally blown away. Blown away that this had taken place almost 80 years ago.”
The film documents 28 turbulent months in Owens’s life, from just before he enrolled in university to the Olympics where, ESPN would later say, the runner “single-handedly crush[ed] Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy.”
Jason Sudeikis, who plays Owens’s college trainer Larry Snyder, says he wanted to make the movie because “it didn’t lean on any one thing. It was bigger than just a sports film. It wasn’t pontificating, we didn’t treat Jesse with kid gloves and only as an icon. We can’t have all our heroes with giant hammers and capes. While that is good at the box office and for people with stock options I don’t know how good it is for little boys and girls who think that is the only way they can become a hero. We got to show the humanity behind him, we see him warts and all. You see his petulance, you get to see his indecision, you see him make horrible missteps as a husband and father, and yet all through that adversity he has the humility and integrity to correct those mistakes. That is just as heroic as whipping Hitler’s buns for four gold medals.”
James, who was recently seen as civil rights leader John Lewis in the critically acclaimed Selma, felt the weight of playing a legend on screen.
“It is one thing to be leading your own film,” he says. “To be number one on that call sheet, to know you have the biggest workload, to know that there are millions of dollars and ideas on your head. It’s another thing to play Jesse
Owens, the icon, the man, the myth, the legend. A guy who is not only a pivotal person in American history but world history, so I knew I had my work cut for me. The pressure was there. Obviously he’s not alive but his family is and have been very much involved since the beginning. There is a certain responsibility to play a real character, of course, but the great Jesse Owens is a whole other thing.”
After starring as Owens in Race, James has his sights set on playing another kind of hero. “I want to play Spider-Man,” he says. “I think that would be dope. I’ve always wanted to play a superhero but Spider-Man is so cool, so unassuming. I think I can relate a little.”