Watch the whole thing HERE!
Watch the whole thing HERE!
Watch the whole thing HERE!
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.”
The title of a new historical drama works on two levels. On the surface “Race” is about Jesse Owens, the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history. It is the story of his early career and the Ohio State races that made him a legend but it is also about how an African American runner stared down Hitler and won.
The story begins 28 months before the 1936 Olympics in Germany. Owens (Stephan James) is a freshman at Ohio State University. As one of the few African American students at the school he faces daily indignities like not being allowed to use the showers until all the white athletes are finished.
Track and field coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) senses Jesse’s potential and trains the young man, refining his technique. “Everyone says he’s a natural, best they’ve ever seen.” The pair work towards a goal, the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. “If he works on his ‘start,’” says Snyder in a telling bit of foreshadowing, “you’re looking at a 1936 gold-medal winner at the Olympics.”
In the ramp-up to the games Owens smashes long-held world records, becoming a local celebrity and a natural choice to lead America’s entry in Berlin, but he has doubts.
“I heard they don’t care much for coloured folk over there,” he says.
“Don’t care much in Columbus either,” replies Snyder. “Is that going to be a problem?”
Add to that the enormous demands on him to win and pressure from the NAACP to stay at home and to show solidarity for the oppressed people of Germany and Owens is conflicted. Eventually the weight of race and politics are pushed aside—“Out there on that track you’re free of all of this,” says Owens. “There’s no black-and-white just fast and slow.”—and the rest, as they say, is history.
We all know pretty much how “race” will end so the trick for director Stephen Hopkins is to keep it entertaining along the way. For the most part he does, amping up the story with melodrama and an old fashioned story of triumph.
The racing scenes are effectively rendered and a sequence where Jesse learns to block out all the distractions brings the audience into the mindset of a runner for whom focus is the key to winning. Also, in the parallel story of the Olympics committee’s decision to partake in the games is a particularly chilling shot of the proposed Nazi Embassy next to the White House.
Melodramatic though the presentation, there is an undeniable gut-punch that comes along with the dramatization of inhumanity, whether it is the personal slight of Owens being called names on and off the track or the Nazis ousting Jewish families from their homes. Hopkins infuses both with meaning, using them to push the story forward.
It’s in the Synder character the movie stumbles. Sudeikis plays this tough-talking, hard-drinking excuse for an inspirational character with a kind of heightened reality that adds to the melodramatic feel of the film.
Stephan James remains at the heart of the film, steady and strong able to convincingly play the athlete and the man.
Ultimately “Race” isn’t really about race or, specifically racing. It’s about sportsmanship and the ability of sports to cut through personal prejudices of all sorts. As a sports movie it gets less exciting when it leaves the track but as a story of human determination and will it earns a gold medal.