Jesse Owens (1913-1980) was the first American in the history of Olympic track and field to win four gold medals in a single Olympiad. His record-breaking performance in Berlin, in 1936, was especially meaningful because Owens was an African-American. There had been other outstanding African-American runners, including Eddie Tolan, who won two gold medals in track and field at the 1932 Los Angeles games, and Ralph Metcalf, a silver-medalist in 1932, and a teammate of Owens’s in the 4 X 100 relay in Berlin—but Olympic and professional sports were largely the province of white athletes. Boxing was the one exception, and Joe Louis, Owens’s close friend, dominated that sport.
Despite Jesse Owens’s enduring popularity, only one feature-length TV movie has been made of his life, Richard Irving’s The Jesse Owens Story (1984), a well-received docudrama starring Dorian Harewood. Owens narrated Bud Greenspan’s excellent documentary, Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin, in which the world-renowned athlete revisits his gold in the 100 and 200 meter, long jump (a record that stood for 25 years), and relay. Made in 1964, but not broadcast until 1968 because of institutionalized racism at the major networks, the documentary provided many Americans with their first glimpse of Owens in action. In 1936, that footage would only have screened briefly in movie theater newsreels.
Now, a new and aptly named biopic, Race, chronicles Owens’s life from 1933 to 1936. It begins with the runner’s first days at Ohio State University, including his incredible 45-minutes at the amateur Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1935. There Owens broke three world records and equaled another. The film also depicts the Berlin games, and Owens’s longstanding romance with Ruth Solomon, who became his wife in 1935. Canadian actor Stephan James (Selma, 2015), stars as Jesse Owens, fellow Canadian Shanice Banton makes her film debut as Ruth, and Jason Sudeikis (We’re the Millers, 2013) co-stars as Owens’s OSU coach, Larry Snyder.
Biography.com caught up with director Stephen Hopkins (The Reaping, 2007) to speak about Race, and its international cast and crew.
The original script portrayed Owens’s entire life, but Hopkins, a white, South African-born director, felt it was not possible to do justice to that in two hours. “I just love this three years, but I wish I would have been able to include his childhood because that is what made him who he was,” Hopkins says. “It gave him that steel on the inside.” Owens was born in Alabama in 1913, the last of seven siblings. His father, Henry, the son of a slave, was a sharecropper, but Owens’s mother, Emma, yearned for a better life. When Jesse was nine years old, she convinced her husband to move the family to Cleveland where Henry got a job in a steel mill.
Asked to comment on the irony of a movie about an American hero, written by two Brits (Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse), starring a Canadian, and directed by him (Hopkins was educated in Britain), the director replies: “This is also a European story, as well as an American story. It was the world’s story.” Owens came very close to not having a narrative beyond Ann Arbor and his other collegiate wins—the United States nearly boycotted the summer Olympics because of Germany’s growing militarism.
By 1936, Hitler was chancellor of Germany, and the country had withdrawn from the League of Nations. A year earlier, it had passed the Nuremberg Laws, forcing Jewish citizens to leave the country. German-Jewish athletes were also barred from Olympic play. Race highlights the last-minute switch in the relay of two American Jewish runners for Owens and Metcalf, a shameful bargain attributed to Avery Brundage, then head of America’s Olympic Committee. By all journalistic accounts, and in the movie, Owens objected to the replacement.
Hopkins points to the significance of Owens’s victories in overturning the Arayan race theory. “The Nazis were using the Olympics to put themselves on a map, to brand themselves with a sporting event,” he explains. “It backfired because it became known as the Jesse Owens Olympics and not the Nazi Olympics.” Ironically, in Berlin, unlike the U.S., Owens and other African-American athletes were not subject to segregated quarters. “In 1933, when this film starts,” Hopkins says, “there were no racist laws in Germany, only in America.” Race depicts the locker room segregation at OSU and, briefly, the indignities the African-American athletes suffered when traveling, even aboard ship on the 1936 Atlantic crossing.
In Race, the games were shot on-location at the Olympiastadion, the 1936 venue. “I did not know how important it was to film there, until I went scouting it,” Hopkins admits. “We shot the scene where Jesse goes to meet Hitler and is rebuffed by him in the actual room it took place.” The director refers to an apocryphal story in which Hitler leaves the stadium before he was to shake hands with Owens. In Greenspan’s documentary, Owens explains that while Hitler did not shake his hand, as he had the white gold medalists, he was not the first to be rebuffed. In Donald McRae’s Heroes Without a Country: America’s Betrayal of Joe Louis and Jessie Owens (2002), the author reports that Hitler left the stadium the day before Owens won the 100-meter, to avoid shaking hands with Cornelius Johnson, the African-American gold medalist in the high jump.
Brundage (Jeremy Irons) is portrayed as a self-serving villain in Race, but in real life, he was also a tyrant who insisted that Olympic athletes remain amateurs. He found flimsy excuses to ban many female and African-American athletes from competing, including Owens, when the gold medalist refused to participate in a barnstorming tour of Europe after the games. In Race, Brundage accompanies Owens to Hitler’s box, and criticizes the chancellor for his actions. Actually, it was the IOC president, Henri Ballet-Latour of Belgium, who demanded that Hitler shake the hands of all or none of the gold medalists after his rebuff of Johnson. Earlier in the film, Brundage insists that all Nazi banners had to be removed from Berlin’s public buildings. Again, that was Ballet-Latour, not Brundage.
When Hopkins is asked how important it was for him to understand the entire scope of his hero’s life, he replies: “You don’t just have to know who Jesse Owens was, but you have to have a theme for the film. Jesse is caught up in forces much larger than him.” Recalling Owens’s autobiography, Jesse: The Man Who Outran Hitler (1978), Hopkins says the athlete was terrified of losing because it would prove the Nazis were right. “That is a very brave man,” Hopkins observes. “It would have been easier to boycott than to lose in front of the world.” Jesse Owens won, but he returned to a country still in the throes of the Great Depression—and he was a black man. Banned by Brundage from amateur competition, his first job was as a janitor. While Owens was a talented orator and coach, he struggled to support himself and his family for the rest of his life.