F THE Western world’s greatest black heroes include the likes of Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela, top sprinter and long jumper Jesse James is not far behind. For all his success at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, however, where he won four gold medals, many observers feel that his achievements have not received the attention they deserve.
This now looks set to change with the release of a film about Owens, Race, which is directed by Stephen Hopkins.
“I thought I knew something about him,” begins Hopkins, who has made films as diverse as Predator 2, Lost in Space and The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. “But as I delved into his life I realised that I knew almost nothing about him.
“I then asked a lot of African-American friends and no one really knew that much. They thought he might have been one of the guys who stood up at the 1968 Olympics [to support Black Power].”
Everyone that Hopkins asked about Owens had different ideas. “But when I went into his story, I found a real hero,” he explains. “Growing up, the great heroes of our life were people like Muhammad Ali or Nelson Mandela.
“I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time with both of them and you realise that maverick people like that are so rare nowadays,” he adds. “So to come across this story of a real hero who never tried to be a hero, I found it very spiritual.”
Hopkins’ film focuses on just two years of Owens’ story, which unfolds during a key moment in history. The Nazi party had recently come to power in Germany and Owens’ success struck a blow against Hitler’s Olympic ambitions. “Jesse’s ability to run put him in contact with all sorts of people at this extraordinary time,” says Hopkins.
“Jesse happened to be there when the first-ever boycott of the Olympics was proposed. He happened to be there when the modern Olympics was created; the Nazis created the concept of the torch being run to the Olympics from Greece.
“That had never happened before. The dove being released, the opening ceremony, the eternal flame being lit, these are all their concepts, their ideas. Then, with that being the backdrop, we have the story of this kid in his early 20s.”
Owens’ early life, growing up in Alabama and Ohio, was defined by hardship. His grandfather was a slave and his father was a sharecropper. Throughout the majority of his childhood, Owens and his family faced starvation on a daily basis. He was terribly sick as a child. Two of his brothers died of malnutrition.
“When he was five years old, Jesse had a boil that was stopping him breathing and was closing up his heart,” says Hopkins. “There was no doctor so his mother had to cut it out with a knife. It was a huge lump and for five days he bled and they thought he was going to die.”
He lived, of course, and went on to become one of America’s greatest Olympians. Germany dominated the 1936 Olympics, held at the specially constructed Olympiastadion in Berlin, though Owens scooped gold in the 100m, 200m, long jump and 4x100m relay.
“He was amazing,” says Hopkins, “not just with his achievements but also his temperament. How could someone keep such a cool head? How could he walk into this arena with 120,000 people and half a million people outside? He walked into the Olympic Stadium having never left his own country.”
Adding to the pressure were the complaints of those at home; many in the African-American community asked him not to race.
“They didn’t believe in supporting Nazi Germany. The other half did want him to go over there and show them what he could do.
“Then, of course, in his own country there was institutionalised racism.
“In fact, you were a criminal if you weren’t a racist in America at this time. Jesse’s is just a remarkable story.”
It is indeed, and the Jesse Owens film role was much coveted. It was initially awarded to British actor John Boyega, who’d come to the fore courtesy of his role in the 2011 British sci-fi comedy Attack the Block.
Though when he got the chance to appear in a galaxy far, far away courtesy of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the role passed to Canadian actor Stephan James.
“John Boyega was on board for a long time,” concedes Hopkins. “He was really up for it but he couldn’t turn down the opportunity he got [on Star Wars]. I am not disappointed. Stephan James is an extraordinary athlete as well as an actor.
“He is probably more like Jesse. He is a very Zen kind of character, which is how I see Jesse Owens.”
James says that he can empathise with Owens. “I think so,” he says. “He was a very loving and caring person and I feel like I live life in that way as well, that I let my actions speak for me. He used his work ethic and his God-given talent, his love for running.”
The 22-year-old actor rose to prominence in the 2012 Canadian film Home Again, and as a supporting actor in the 2014 Martin Luther King film, Selma.
Growing up, he did track and field at elementary school. “And for about a year or two, I was into running,” he says. “I did the 100m and I did the hurdles. I also tried my hand at the high jump.”
He trained hard for the role in Race. “When I was going through the training process to run like Jesse, I had to do a lot of things that would put me in a position to sustain this shoot,” he concedes. “That included cutting down my body fat and working on my conditioning.”
Canadian sprinter Hank Palmer, who ran in the Beijing Olympics against Usain Bolt, does some of the on-screen racing, “though I had to do most of it,” says James. “It’s always easier when you’re making a film for the actor to be able to do a lot of things that he’s not supposed to be able to do, ordinarily, like running fast.
“I wanted to put myself in a position where the director was able to use me in as many of the shots as possible.
“So I ended up doing about 95 per cent of the running and the athletics required for this film. The coaches I’ve been working with have said that I’ve got faster.”
It was important that James mimicked Owens’ running style.
“I dedicated myself to running like he ran because he is very unique,” says James, who was named as one of the Rising Stars at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
“Also, Jesse’s running habits and his techniques and how they change under the guidance of coach Snyder are part of the story. So I have to run like him and show that adjustment throughout the film.”
In many ways, Race is as much Snyder’s story as it is Owens’, says the film’s director. “The film is really their story,” notes Hopkins. “Jesse was an incredible athlete when Larry found him but Larry turned him into a winner.”
The Larry Snyder role is taken on by actor Jason Sudeikis, who made his name on the iconic American TV sketch show Saturday Night Live.
“Larry definitely has a maverick quality to him,” says Sudeikis. “He doesn’t care about race and creed. He’s bucking the system, especially with his training techniques.
“I come from a basketball background and he reminds me of Press Maravich who invented so many of the ball-handling skills that you still see today.”
Snyder, too, had a lot of inventive ideas, “Especially when it came to correcting things in Jesse’s technique,” says Sudeikis. “Our technical advisor on the film, who is a coach for the Canadian national team, was frustrated that he doesn’t have access to a notebook with all Larry’s training ideas.”
Like everyone else involved in the film, Sudeikis is pleased that he can help bring Owens’ story to a wider audience.
“I knew something of the Jesse Owens story, though not in the detail that we lay out in the film,” he says. “But the question we found ourselves asking is, ‘How has this gone so long without people telling the story?’” Sudeikis, James and Hopkins have now righted that wrong.