An athletic superstar faces off against Adolf Hitler’s vision of Aryan supremacy.
Based on the incredible true story of Jesse Owens, the legendary athletic superstar whose quest to become the greatest track and field athlete in history thrusts him onto the world stage of the 1936 Olympics, where he faces off against Adolf Hitler’s vision of Aryan supremacy. Race is an enthralling film about courage, determination, tolerance, and friendship, and an inspiring drama about one man’s fight to become an Olympic legend.
Written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse and directed by Stephen Hopkins, Race tracks the journey of James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens (portrayed by Stephan James of Selma). As filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten of Game of Thrones) readies her cameras to record the Games under the steely gaze of Nazi officials, Jesse reaffirms his determination to compete with excellence and honor. With the world watching, he will place in sharp relief his own country’s history of racism as well as the Hitler regime’s oppressiveness.
Forever defining what an athlete can accomplish, Jesse Owens races into history as an inspiration to millions, then and now.
People and Legend
Jesse Owens is a global icon. Even in this information age when fame is fleeting, the four-time gold medal winner’s victory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics still resonates. His performance at the Games was a shining moment that lit up the world. 80 years later, Owens remains one of a handful of Olympic heroes whose name and image are an indelible part of our cultural heritage.
Producer Luc Dayan, after developing and producing the award-winning short film Tribute to Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis, began to strive to get a movie about Owens made. He would be joined first by producer Jean-Charles Lévy, then by director Stephen Hopkins, and finally by an international coterie of filmmakers – which in itself speaks to Owens’ enduring impact on, and importance to, people all over the world.
Made with the cooperation of the Jesse Owens Foundation as well as the Owens family, Race is the first feature film about Owens. Lévy reports, “Before anything else, we went to the daughters of Jesse Owens and his wife Ruth Solomon. We wanted to convey to them what we hoped to achieve, the intended spirit of the movie, and how we invited their blessing. They were with us through the development process, and have been ever since.”
In writing the screenplay for Race, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse chose to focus on the most eventful years of the legendary runner’s life, beginning at the age of 19 when he first arrived at Ohio State University, and ending with his triumphant run(s) two years later on the world stage.
As Waterhouse explains, “A cradle-to-grave story didn’t interest us, and we felt we could suggest a lot of what came before and after for him through the prism of this particularly significant stretch in Jesse’s life.”
Hopkins adds, “I don’t think it’s possible to do full justice to Jesse Owens’ life in a two-hour movie. By honing in on the years 1934 to 1936, we see him mature from a talented runner into a worldwide champion. The time frame of his accomplishment was also of great dramatic interest; it could not have happened before or after because of certain advances in technology and because of the rise of Fascism in Europe.”
Shrapnel and Waterhouse also sought to go beyond the boundaries of a typical sports film, onto a broader social and political canvas. Shrapnel elaborates, “In order for the audience to appreciate the enormity of Owens’ accomplishments – the scale and importance of his victories – we had to give them background and history; people may not know just how close these Games came to not happening, or happening without U.S. participation. As it was, the Berlin Games were the last Olympics until after World War II. The world was changing fast.”
Waterhouse reflects, “We told Stephen our ideas up front, and he was quite supportive. Our collaboration with him evolved into one of the best experiences we’ve ever had with a director. At every stage, he would only enhance what we had done.”
Hopkins offers, “Jesse Owens’ story is so incredible and rich that Joe and Anna didn’t have to pump it up in the slightest. But they had a lot of picking-and-choosing to do to get at its essence.”
The screenwriters sifted through hundreds of historical documents, social and political biographies from the era – everything about Jesse Owens that they could get their hands on. “It reaffirmed for us the scale and importance of Jesse’s victories in Berlin, both in the sports arena and in the world at large,” says Shrapnel.
“As scripted by Joe and Anna, Race is truly an international story,” notes producer Kate Garwood.
Waterhouse reveals, “Our window into his story became a central relationship for him at this time, and indeed in his life as a whole: the training, respect, and friendship he experienced with Ohio State University coach Larry Snyder. Here was an emotional component which could support the multi-faceted social and political situations that Jesse navigated.
“For, the high-stakes environment in which Owens became enmeshed did take an emotional toll on him. His life was being directly impacted by the impassioned debate over whether the United States should boycott the Berlin Games to protest Adolf Hitler’s persecution of Jewish and other ethnic groups.”
Shrapnel adds, “There are several pairings we explore aside from Owens and Snyder. Another working relationship plays out on the American Olympic committee between Avery Brundage and Jeremiah Mahoney.
“Then there is the competitive edge but also the great respect between Owens and one of his main rivals, German runner Carl ‘Luz’ Long, Hitler’s great Aryan hope. They remained friends for years afterwards.”
Finally, Shrapnel points to “the shifting dynamic between filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.”
The latter duo are representatives of a world apart from Owens that nonetheless impacts his destiny. “For the Nazi regime, the Olympics was to be their introduction to the world stage,” reminds Waterhouse. “That jump-started the significance and long-term impact the 1936 Games would have. Riefenstahl convinced Hitler that filming the Games would immortalize the Nazi movement in a manner comparable to her earlier work Triumph of the Will. But Goebbels wondered about her motives, and about her relationship with Hitler.”
Riefenstahl’s battle of wits with Goebbels telescopes the delicate dance at the time between the German people and the Nazi ruling class. Goebbels would lose this propaganda battle, in part due to Owens’ unprecedented performance, while Riefenstahl would enshrine the event for all time with her two-part documentary masterpiece Olympia. Footage of Owens was initially edited out of the film and then restored only at Riefenstahl’s insistence.
Waterhouse notes, “He also met people who taunted and jeered at him, both at home and abroad. Even after he had made his country proud, he was subject to racist attitudes in his everyday life.”
Shrapnel comments, “That was a lifelong battle for Jesse, struggling against the continuing specter of racism. This is something we felt was important to include at the end of the script, not on title cards but in a sequence that dramatizes an – unfortunately – actual event which reminded him exactly what he had come home to.”