When actor Stephan James was setting off to make the Civil Rights-era drama “Selma,” director Stephen Hopkins gave him some advice. “I told him, ‘Don’t come back from “Selma” thinking you’re in the same era,’ ” said the director of “Race,” which opens Feb. 19. “In 1936, black Americans were never going to get their rights.”
But 1936 was also the year that the man whom James portrays — Olympics legend Jesse Owens — went to the Berlin Games, won four gold medals and scored a public-relations coup against the Third Reich’s “corporately branded Olympics,” as Hopkins described them. Owens, arguably, changed the world.
“There wasn’t a civil-rights movement at that time,” the British director said, “but in many ways Jesse’s success, especially in such a racist arena, helped jump-start the conversation.”
Owens also very globally debunked the Nazis’ theories of Aryan supremacy in what would have been considered, today, to have been a PR triumph. But despite what he accomplished in Berlin, Owens never even got a congratulatory telegram from Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (Hitler, famously, was also said to have snubbed Owens in Berlin, and does so in the movie, though Owens denied it later.) The movie shows a post-Games Owens having to get to a dinner — in his honor — through a restaurant’s back door. The film, said co-star Jason Sudeikis, “is a nice reminder how far we’ve come as a country, and how far we need to go.”
James said there’s “totally a lot of pressure” playing such icons as Owens and the great civil-rights activist John Lewis, whom he played in “Selma.” But he said he’s not sure whether young people are familiar with the Owens story the way earlier generations may have been.
“I don’t know if older people know him any better,” the actor said. “I had to learn about him, too.” Some people, Hopkins said wryly, think Owens was one of the athletes in Mexico City who gave the black power salute (actually Tommie Smith and John Carlos). And Owens’ daughters Beverly Owens Prather and Marlene Owens Rankin said there’s a disparity in awareness about their father and his accomplishments: Many young people of, say, Stephan James’ age, have little idea about Jesse Owens. But at the Owens Foundation, which they run with their older sister, Gloria Owens Hemphill, they get many requests from young kids, 7th- and 8th-graders, researching their father’s life. “I can’t account for it,” Owens Rankin said.
“Race” should bring everybody up to speed, so to speak. Owens was the grandson of a slave, and the son of a former sharecropper (“practically a slave,” Hopkins said). He’s first seen in the film — naturally enough — running. His gifts at track and field brought him from Depression-era Cleveland to Ohio State University, where he had a fateful meeting with the man who was going to guide him toward Berlin: Larry Snyder, a former track star himself and the coach of what was, at the time, a losing team. Owens’ arrival would change that. Meeting Snyder (Sudeikis) would change Owens.
“A revealing thing about Larry,” Sudeikis said, “is what Jesse wrote, when he described Larry as an ‘accidental non-racist.’ It’s a line with a bit of a Yogi Berra quality to it, but it made absolute sense to me, in the sense that Larry walked the walk.” The coach accepted black students on the track team, for instance, at a time when OSU’s football team disallowed them. “Larry was on the right side of history,” Sudeikis said, “and he was bucking the system, no pun intended” (Ohio State being the Buckeyes).
Speaking of puns, “Race” is not a whitewash. The virulent racism of 1930s American is on full display, but Owens is flawed, too: While competing in California, he becomes involved with Quincella Nickerson (Chantel Riley), imperiling his relationship back home with Ruth (Shanice Banton), his wife-to-be and already the mother of his child.
“I think they obviously believe their father’s a saint,” Hopkins said of the Owens sisters, who consulted extensively on “Race” (and said they like it), “but I wanted to make a story people believe. I’d hate to have a hero who has no flaws. And here was a young man dropped into an incredible maelstrom of politics. All he wanted to do is run as fast as he could and feel free, and that was not allowed to him.”
The central conflict in “Race” is whether Owens would go to Berlin at all — the NAACP urges him not to go, as do other parties opposed to the perception that the United States would endorse a racist regime. Leading the pro-Games contingent is wealthy developer Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), who would become the longtime president of the International Olympic Committee (1952-72), and urges America to go, all the while under contract to build Germany’s new embassy in Washington. “He’s a real villain,” Hopkins said.
The other problematic figure is filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl — portrayed by the terrific Dutch actress Carice van Houten — who created a masterpiece around the ’36 Games (“Olympia”) but was also an unapologetic propagandist for Hitler (“Triumph of the Will”).
These peripheral characters add substance to a story that, at its core, is already close to incredible: A black kid from Cleveland strikes a blow for global freedom, at a time when freedom in his own country is in short supply. “It was a perfect storm,” Owens Prather said. “What was going on in this country, in Europe, Hitler, all of that. The history of it. It makes for a good story.”
Did they ever discuss with their father how history might have changed had he passed on Berlin?
“We didn’t talk about it,” Owens Rankin said. “But it crosses your mind every now and then.”