The story of Jesse Owens is one that many African-American school children only hear when Black History Month rolls around, yet seldom is his legacy truly celebrated in the manner it deserves outside of the occasional documentary.
Earlier this week, I attended a screening of the Stephen Hopkins directed film Race starring Stephan James (Selma) and Jason Sudeikis. I walked in prepared to not like it, and had already relegated it to little more than a Nick at Nite special based on the trailers.
But I was happily wrong. Race gives the viewer an intimate look at the life of Jesse Owens from the time just before he arrives on campus at Ohio State University to his gold medal triumphs at the 1936 Olympic Games. The cinematography was mind-blowing, the dialogue was impeccable and the acting was world-class.
Telling his story in cinematic tribute is long overdue. He is a direct predecessor to the modern superstar athlete, inspiring Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and countless others who have followed the path he has blazed. It was not a labor of necessity but of duty.
Among the first people to stroll the record carpet were two women dressed in regal attire and covered with an aura of royalty. It was Marlene Owens Rankin and Gloria Owens Hemphill, Jesse Owens’ daughters. I asked what emotions ran through their heads when they first saw the finished product.
“This was the first feature film of his life,” said Marlene. “Film is a very important medium. It captures a very significant time in his life that really launched Jesse Owens. It really captures who he was as a person, who he was an athlete, what he meant to his country, what his country meant to him, his relationships with individuals, his relationships with his family, and all of those things. It’s very special because it does that in a manner that nothing else has done it.”
“As a mother, as an educator, I hope that they see that just because something is not easy to achieve, and there may be many obstacles along the way, if you want that and really believe in yourself, then you’ll get it. You have to really believe you can live the quality of life that you deserve,” added Gloria.
There were many Olympic athletes from various countries who were inspired by Jesse Owens’ legacy. Dan O’Brien is a world-class decathlete who won a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics. He said Owens was integral to helping him create a positive racial identity as well.
“I was adopted at a young age, the parents that adopted me were white and I didn’t know much about my African American heritage or where I came from," said O'Brien. "So, to help me connect, my adopted mother would read me stories about prominent African Americans. One of the first stories he read me at a young age was the Jesse Owens story. It was shortly after that that I became a track and field athlete. It was through those stories that I really gained inspiration.'
O’Brien’s testimony signifies the importance of athletes and how, whether they like it or not, are indeed role models.
Sanya Richards-Ross is a Jamaican-American sprinter who mirrored Owens in winning a total of four gold medals in her Olympic career. She too was overjoyed at the prospect of seeing her idol portrayed on the big screen.
“Jesse Owens just means so much, not just to African Americans and other black people of the world, but to our sport," said Richard-Ross. "When I was coming up I used to hear about him all the time. When I got old enough I started researching everything he went through. I always felt a connection to him because I won my first world title in Berlin. To see where he slept, to walk into the booth where Hitler was while he was competing, there was just this energy that made me realize what he was able to overcome made it possible for me to step on the track and do what I do.”
Race opens in theaters nationwide today. Stay tuned for exclusive conversations with director Stephen Hopkins, lead Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, various co-stars and much more.