Frank Litsky wrote, “There were no starting blocks then; sprinters merely dug holes at the starting line in tracks of cinder or dirt,” in Jesse Owens’ 1980 New York Times obituary.
Owens was the African American track and field star whose history-making, four-medal victory at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin is finally the subject of a major motion picture, “Race,” starring Stephan James and Jason Sudeikis, directed by Stephen Hopkins and opening in theaters nationwide on February 19 – about six months out from the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Looking across Owens’ life, and zeroing in on his record-shattering, medal-sweeping performance through Hopkins’ lens, it becomes clear that the athlete and the man managed to carve out a starting place over and over again in the shifting sands of U.S. and world politics and culture – to advance a cause.
“Race is as much a suspenseful political thriller, as it is a character piece,” Hopkins told 24Life. “We spent as much time as possible together [with the actors] going through the history as closely as we could, but of course discussing the themes within the truth that had to drive the drama.
“Jesse [had to learn] about dealing with the building burden of dealing with politics and racism, and Larry [Snyder, Jesse Owens’ coach] about looking into Jesse’s character to understand how to help him and also investigating his own isolation and drives as a man – their relationship was a small miracle of compatibility.”
CHARTING NEW TERRITORY
For Hopkins and the film’s cast, much of the experience making Race entered new territory, beginning with the story. Hopkins says he was “moved that such a quiet, authentic man from such an impossibly challenging background, could have emerged in possibly the single most politically, technologically, and ethically turbulent periods of history, to become the first worldwide sporting superstar – and by accomplishing this, putting the agenda of racism in the USA on the forefront it deserved.”
Hopkins sought a young actor capable of the “quiet inner life and physical power of Owens,” who was just 22 when he stepped onto the world stage. Hopkins met Stephan James as James was preparing to play John Lewis, the role that brought the Canadian actor to U.S. audiences’ attention in Selma. Hopkins decided not to second-guess his luck, meeting James so early in the casting process. For James, the chance to play one of the greatest athletes who ever lived and a world hero required little thought.
Casting Jason Sudeikis as Owens’ coach Larry Snyder also meant a new venture for director and actor alike. Hopkins says the role required an understanding of the psychology and passion of athletic competition, as well as the craft and charisma to play a “tough character who was accidentally non-racist (according to Owens), because all he cared about was winning.” Critics are describing the role as a break-out opportunity for Sudeikis.
RUNNING BODY, RACING MIND
Owens had a remarkable power to focus on the present, even when it was physically or mentally painful. The year before his performance at the pressure-filled Olympic Games, Owens nearly dropped out of a Big Ten college meet he couldn’t train for due to an injured back. After a long soak in a hot bath, he persuaded his coach to let him attempt to compete event by event, and managed to break three world records and tie a fourth in the space of 45 minutes.
Actor James makes a practice of researching his roles in order to be honest to the film’s story, and says that even his mental preparation to portray Owens centered on his physical presence in the moment of performance. It was “more about focusing on the details of how Jesse ran,” James explains. “How did his stride look, how did his start look? Those are the things I would constantly ask myself.”
Track and field was a new sport for James, who played basketball and volleyball growing up. He trained for two months with track and field coaches at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, working to perfect Owens’ unique, high-stepping gait in addition to improving his speed and jumping distance. Don’t forget that Owens – and James – ran in shoes with 3-inch spikes that were standard equipment at the time, on a dirt track.
Filming on location in Berlin also provided James with what he likens to “an out-of-body experience” that helped him enter his character’s mindset. Ultimately, he credits the opportunity to spend time with Owens’ family as a crucial aspect of preparation. The experience, James says, left him with an “all-around feeling of no dream being too big. Everyone is capable of great things. I think that’s what Jesse represents.”
For Hopkins, “It was wonderful to tell a story of a hero who didn’t chase the spotlight yet who challenged so many dark energies through an inner grace and honesty.” He adds, “We have very few celebrated prophets or heroes nowadays, I feel. A lot of the great heroes in the world fighting now for truth, freedom, equality, ecology and justice are not who the press find interesting. Jesse is a breath of fresh air to me.”
Race, from Focus Features, opens in theaters nationwide on February 19, 2016.