Access Pollywood: ‘Race’ Gives Credit Where it’s Due

by Catherine Trifiletti

A legendary American athlete, Jesse Owens, recognized in newly-released biopic.

By Catherine Trifiletti


Stephan James poses at the advanced screening of “Race” (Photo by Catherine Trifiletti)

Inspire – that’s what Stephen Hopkins, director of “Race,” hopes his new movie will do to viewers. Hitting theaters Friday February 19, the film captures a tumultuous moment in history when discrimination was embedded in American culture and aggressively taking root abroad with the rise of Nazi Germany. “Race” recounts the true story of Ohio State University track sensation, James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens, whose earth-shattering speed led him to win four gold medals for the U.S. in the 1936 Summer Olympics hosted by the Nazi regime in Berlin.

As headlines about race relations dominate the news, the film’s release serves as a timely reminder of a hateful past that threatens to repeat itself. Portraying such a legendary athlete on the big screen was no easy task, but the cultural significance of the role was not lost on Canadian-bred actor, Stephan James, a 22 year old with a knack for playing major historical figures (he played Civil Rights leader, John Lewis in “Selma”).

Although James spent months perfecting Owens’ running form, he spent years trying to understand his character before filming. He counts Owens daughters Beverly Owens Prather, Marlene Owens Rankin and Gloria Owens Hemphill as “instrumental” in the learning process. Although the physical training was taxing, James was equally concerned with the emotional aspect of the role.

“It’s just as big a task to bring a mental aspect to him because people don’t know about who he is as a man, as a father. So for me it was just as important that physically I was performing, but also mentally, bringing an element of humanity to him.”

The movie hones in on Owens’ life from age 19 to 22 when he first began running track at Ohio State and training for the Olympics. Hopkins explains that it was a difficult decision to only cover three years of Owens’ journey because his entire life is so interesting. One little known fact is that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration offered Owens no public recognition for his accomplishments when he returned from Berlin. It wasn’t until decades later, shortly before his death in 1980, that Owens received a well-deserved tribute with the Congressional Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford.

James, Hopkins and the rest of the team behind “Race” hope that they have immortalized Owens’ story so that it can inspire people for years to come.

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