A conversation with the director of the new film "Race" on Jesse Owens' iconic run at the 1936 Olympics, bringing history to life, and sports as psychology lesson.
Photo by Thibault Grabherr / Focus Features
You know how this works, because it happens every year: an inspirational sports movie comes out, some people thrill to the healing powers of sports, and others roll their eyes over that treatment and all that it inevitably leaves out of the equation. These films are different, but not necessarily distinct—there's a certain reverence and straightforwardness that defines them.
Stephen Hopkins' Race, which opens nationwide this Friday, covers Jesse Owens' path from college track star to Olympic icon, and should satisfy both the sentimentalists and the skeptics. Yes, it is a crowd-pleaser, but it's not just that. The movie avoids the temptation to present sports as a cure for any of America's enduring sicknesses. Race is a spirited reminder that the political, financial, and social elements tangled with sports—all the calculations and circumstances that happen around the games themselves—are nothing new.
Race, which stars Selma's Stephan James as Owens and Jason Sudeikis as Larry Snyder, Owens' coach at Ohio State, could easily have descended into Hollywood rah-rah. Owens' defiant, dominant performance under Adolf Hitler's murderous gaze at the 1936 Berlin Olympic games actually happened, although Race never implies that Owens' four gold medals humbled Hitler—or dampened America's institutional racism. Hopkins does believe that Owens' accomplishments "really put this conversation of racism on an open map in America for the first time."
There's a reason for that. "In the end," Hopkins says, "you can't censor sports."
Last week, Hopkins, whose lengthy resume includes everything from Judgment Night to the first season of 24 to Showtime's House of Lies, talked about the challenges of making a 20th century sports milestone relevant for a 21st century audience. Here are some excerpts.
On how many people actually know who Jesse Owens is
I thought I did. Originally, they wanted to do a film about his whole life, which I thought was impossible. It's impossible to do anyone's life, [but] especially his, because his life was so amazing and complicated. As I dug into it, I found out there was a lot I didn't know. Actually, I asked a lot of people—older people, younger people, African-Americans and not—and they all thought they knew he was an athlete. They weren't quite sure what he did or hadn't done. Some of them thought he was one of the athletes in the '68 [Summer] Olympics with the [Black Power salute]. So, people were confused about really what he had actually done, but his name is so evident in everyone's memory.
Obviously, when I started looking into his whole life, I picked these few years of his life because I thought they were such a pivotal point, when he's going from being a boy to a man, I guess. The politics surrounding those three years [1933 to 1936] were so crazy and could never happen again, really.
In those days the Olympics were amateur, and not all about money. The politics of boycotting the Olympics was already a huge deal—that had never happened before. So that was a new idea, that you could use sport as a political tool. A lot of people didn't want America to go to the Olympics. Half the Jewish-American community and half the African-American community wanted them to go to show the Nazis and prove them wrong. Half of them didn't want to go. The Jewish-American community was worried about the reprisals from the Nazis. And the NAACP thought it would be a good statement to make by boycotting the Olympics.
On what he hopes sports fans get out of Race
It's interesting, I'm not sure if it's a sports movie as such. There are three minutes of sports in the whole film—for obvious reasons, because it's an explosively short sport. One of the reasons I ended up with Stephan and Jason as the two leads in this film was because they're both sports nuts. They are freaks about it. If you're a sports nut—and I'm a football nut and a rugby nut and an American football nut—you're into the psychology of sports.
And if you're into the psychology of sports, you're into the psychology of human nature, I think. We all know that without self-awareness and without understanding your levels of what you believe in and who you are and when you're confident and when you're not, you can't be good at almost any endeavor. You have to be able to deal with stress. We're not robots, right? I think the psychology of sports is a fascinating way into seeing how human beings work.
On why it took so long for a feature film about Owens to get made
It's quite a big, expensive thing to make a film about if you're going to try to talk about all the politics and him traveling all over the country and then all over the world to the Berlin Olympics. Now, I think, with technology, and finally the available funds and interest, it was possible to do it.
Another reason, I think, is that Jesse was a very private individual. He avoided the spotlight at all costs, which is sort of rare for a celebrity now. And he never really spoke about how he felt. Luckily, his three daughters have been on board for years now and have helped us navigate through everything that was written about him—a lot of which is not true.
It's kind of hard to make a film about someone who is actually genuinely a good person. Because I read his books and got to know people who knew him, inside him was a person forged out of steel. You don't come from his background—where your grandfather is a slave, your father is a sharecropper; your siblings have died through malnutrition and illness. He almost died. Their father grabbed them out of Alabama and took them to Cleveland to get a job, [then] the Great Depression happened and his father didn't work for 14 years.
This is someone who is so tough on the inside through his upbringing, and, I think, full of rage, which he directed through his sport. This is what I tried to find out and tried to get across in the film. But I think his privacy and his quiet grace on the outside has been something that's always been hard to nail down in terms of character.
My first question to myself on this film, when I narrowed it down to this period, was, "How is it possible that a young, African-American man can walk into a stadium of 20,000 saluting Nazis, hold his shit together, and go race in the 100 meters where you can't make a millisecond of a mistake?" I thought if we could understand how it felt for him to walk in there (Berlin's Olympiastadion) and deal with that, then I thought you could work your way outward from that idea and try to find out how he did do it.
On balancing Owens' heroism with educating viewers
It was an incredibly long, endless conversation. When you're doing any kind of period film where you have to re-educate the audience about the politics and the feeling of the time, if you try to do it in a narrative way, it becomes a series of "This was like this, that was like this, and then this happened." It becomes a series of events. We tried to use the modern relevance of the story; I put that at the front of the film. I tried not to make it like, "Oh, look, we're making an old-fashioned film about people in great clothes with weird cars and funny hats."
Luckily, in terms of the film's narrative, the Nazis are well known; what they stood for is well known. The vague history of what they did and who they were and the timeliness of them is something you don't have to really re-state. Part of the educational process is we had very little time to tell any educational stories in the film.
There's a moment in the film where you see Avery Brundage [the controversial American power broker and Olympic official played by Jeremy Irons] go to Germany and he sees some of the atrocities going on. And he chooses to ignore them and deal with Goebbels, who is this brilliant propagandist. They invented the modern Olympics, the Nazis: carrying the torch from Greece to the Olympics never happened before; all the opening ceremonies. The idea of walking into a corporately sponsored sports event is now not a new idea. Then, it was a brand new idea. I think there's a lot of stuff that's not so difficult to explain because it was the beginning of an era that we're all used to now.
[The Nazis] used this event to put themselves on the map as an authentic political movement as opposed to the gangsters and thieves that they were. And murderers. Inadvertently, they made Jesse the world's first-ever worldwide superstar athlete. It never happened before where an athlete was known in all four corners of the world. There'd be famous boxers, but they weren't known in Africa, you know? It became known as the Jesse Owens Olympics rather than the Nazi Olympics. That was their big, huge mistake.
On shooting in Berlin
In Berlin, he's a big hero. In that stadium, there are photographs of him everywhere. The road taking you to the stadium is called the Jesse Owens Strasse. He's a gigantic hero there...[and] there's a legacy of shame there.
The scene where Jesse got turned down to meet Hitler, which he writes about in his book, we actually shot in the room that it took place in the stadium. And it was more creepy than I thought it was going to be. I've actually got goose bumps now thinking about it; I don't get carried away by that kind of stuff in movies. But there was something for all of us that felt really heavy and really powerful about shooting right there.
On working with Owens' daughters
I felt constantly nauseous, I have to say. I'm not even exaggerating. It was a real pressure. It really weighed upon me not to let people down. I had conversations with Gloria and Beverly and Marlene very early on and even to the end in post[production] about that Jesse would never swear or curse like he does in the film.
There's a moment in the film where all the fame goes to his head and he beds a supermodel for a second, which is not unknown in modern sports. They didn't want these things focused upon and I said, "You know, if we don't show this side of him, people aren't going to believe it. It's already a fairy tale."