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Reasons to watch Race, a true story of Olympian Jesse Owens who went against Hitler

“It’s definitely a true David and Goliath story.”

“It’s definitely a true David and Goliath story.”

Stephan James in the role of legendary Olympian Jesse Ownes in the movie Race. (CBC)

This week on #FilmGems we feature Race, a film that chronicles Jesse Owens' quest to become the greatest track and field athlete in history — who in a time of deep rooted segregation and after a number of triumphs, from high school to university, finds himself on the world stage at the 1936 Olympics.

"This is a story of inspiration, a man who did incredible things during a time when everything was set out against him," said actor Stephan James, who plays Jesse Owens in the film, to Time Magazine.

Here are five reasons why you need to watch this powerful story which you can find on CBC Gem for free.

Courage, determination and triumph during an era of deep-rooted segregation

Eli Goree, Stephan James and Jason Sudeikis. (Photo by Thibault Grabherr - © 2014 Focus Features, LLC.)

Race is the first feature-length film to be made about Jesse Owens, a towering African American athlete who went against Adolf Hitler and shattered his theory of Aryan supremacy. 

"He was making a statement not just to Germany, but to the entire world," said Stephan James to RogerEbert.com.

Hitler believed that German Aryan people were the dominant race and thought he would prove white supremacy at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Nazi Germany. Instead Owens dominated the Games breaking five world records and equaling a sixth in a span of 45 minutes — single handedly obliterating Hitler's theory while also sealing his place in Olympic history. 

His record stood unbroken for the following 48 years until the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, when American Carl Lewis matched Owens' feat.

"Ultimately, to me the story is about a man who kept his soul intact when the world tried to force it out of him. He was under siege from all sides, but a beautiful heroism took hold," said director Stephen Hopkins.

Canadian lead plus prominent and Oscar-winning cast

Stephan James and Oscar winner Jeremy Irons. (Photo by Thibault Grabherr - © 2014 Focus Features, LLC.)

The star studded movie sees Scarborough's Stephan James play legendary Jesse Owens. Prior to Race, he was part of the cast of Ava DuVernay's Selma, one of the most acclaimed films of recent years illuminating the progress of Martin Luther King Jr.'s protest marches in Selma, Alabama.  

"They are such important stories in the fabric of our history: Black history. Not just American history, but world history," said James about these roles in his CBC News interview with Tashauna Reid.

Toronto's Stephan James talks about portraying Jesse Owens

6 years ago
4:29
The young Canadian actor talks about preparing for his starring role as the legendary Olympian and his career in film 4:29

Jason Sudeikis (Horrible Bosses) plays Owens' coach Larry Snyder, who at a time when Black athletes were not permitted to participate in university sports allowed Black athletes to run for him. 

Other cast include Eli Goree (Riverdale, The 100, Ballers), Toronto's Giacamo Gianniotti (Greys Anatomy), Amanda Crew (She's The Man), Chantel Riley (Frankie Drake Mysteries) and the veteran Oscar-winning actor, Jeremy Irons (The Borgias, The Man in the Iron Mask).

Showcases the impact and power of one man

Stephan James. (Photo by Focus Features - © Focus Features, 2015.)

As much as we'd like to say that we've overcome racial barriers, things are still very much unequal in the world and the film Race offers a perspective and awareness of the injustices and unequal treatment of Black people in the Jim Crow era, which unfortunately still resonate with Black people today.

But talk about the impact and power of one man, what Owens demonstrated to the world during the era of segregation, and what were the first televised Olympic Games, is that it's not the race that distinguishes whether you'll be successful or not but rather hard work and individual excellence and honour. 

I always loved running. It was something you could do by yourself and under your own power … You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.- Jesse Owens

By the same token, Owens gave hope to Black people around the world — at the time sending a clear message that anything is possible and that one person can make a difference. He ended up lowering the veil of oppression just enough to allow for the next generation of African American athletes to follow in his steps and continue breaking down racial barriers, inspiring courage in Black people to speak up and ultimately contributing to paving the road for the civil rights movement.

The film also demonstrates that good over evil can triumph and why we all need to stand together in the fight against anti-Black racism as well as what privileges white people have been able to enjoy that Black people are still fighting for.

"[Going in] I didn't know a whole lot about Jesse. I knew who he was and had a general idea of what he had done. I quickly realized that his story went much deeper than one extraordinary display of athleticism," says actor Stephan James.

Race allows you to more fully understand the time and the circumstances and the conflicts that he lived in and navigated.​​​​​​​​​​​- Stephan James

Accurately portrays Owens' life

Adrian Zwicker as Adolf Hitler in the movie Race. (Focus Features)

Focusing on a narrow yet significant portion of his life, this biopic was made in consultation with Owens' three daughters. 

"We were involved from the very beginning," said Jesse Owens' daughter, Marlene Owens Rankin, to TMZ. 

For authenticity, even the crucial Olympics sequences were shot in Berlin including at the Olympiastadion, the very arena in which Jesse Owens earned his medals — and which had been built for the 1936 Games. 

"We had script approval, by our request, and we were even on location in Berlin for a little while. ... Our focus was to make sure history wasn't rewritten and that they stuck to the facts."

Tells the story that inspired generations of athletes

"Jesse struggled and triumphed against adversity all his life. He broke barriers by going to Berlin to run in the Olympics. He changed the course of history, not just the record books. A lot of athletes who came after him wouldn't have had a chance without him," says Stephan James.

Owens inspired some of the great athletes of today who hold him in the highest regard and below are some comments by NFL athletes.

"Jesse Owens' story is incredibly relevant, it'll influence a ton of kids to show them how much you can overcome. How much one person means to the world. How much impact one human being can have," says Richard Sherman, cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers.

"That story can transcend any generation."

Odell Beckham Jr. said: "Jesse's story is gonna always be inspirational. What he went through and what he was able to accomplish says a lot about his family and his character."

"It's definitely a true David and Goliath story," said Jarvis Landry, another wide receiver with the Cleveland Browns.

"Our great hope is that audiences around the world will come away being inspired by Jesse Owens, his generosity, and his ideals — like we were in making Race," says producer Jean-Charles Lévy.

Race movie trailer

1 year ago
2:26
A true story of Olympian Jesse Owens who went against Hitler at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. 2:26

Owens' story beyond the movie 

The film follows Jesse Owens' journey to success but that's not the full extent of his struggles. Following his Olympic success, the story that followed could be a sequel. 

What is unfortunate and most disappointing is that even after his Olympic victory and as someone who's represented a country on the highest level, Owens was still subjugated to second class status. 

"When I came back, after all those stories about Hitler... I came back to my native country, and I could not ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. Now what's the difference?" reflected Owens years later.

His life did not follow a path of privilege that many white athletes of his stature went on to enjoy but instead had to resort to running against racehorses and working at gas stations.

"What was I supposed to do?" Owens said later. "I had four gold medals, but you can't eat four gold medals." 

He eventually moved to Chicago and traveled the country as an inspirational speaker and worked with disadvantaged youth.

Watch the movie Race on CBC Gem now.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vanja Mutabdzija Jaksic is a producer, journalist and a perpetual optimist who loves a good show/film, breathes music, writes poetry, and dabbles in tech and innovative ways of storytelling (including through XR/VR/AR/MR). You can find her stories at cbc.ca/television and cbc.ca/comedy or follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @neptunes_blues.

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