Jesse Owens (played by Stephan James) eyes the long jump runway in a scene from 'Race.'

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Jesse Owens (played by Stephan James) eyes the long jump runway in a scene from 'Race.'

Owens runs ‘The Race’

By Shirrel Rhoades
Movie Reviewer

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James Cleveland Owens was fast. He could run the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds. Arguably, his greatest day as an athlete was May 25, 1935, when he set five world records and tied a sixth in a span of just 45 minutes at the Big Ten Conference track championships. No wonder he was tapped to represent the United States the next year at the Summer Olympics in Berlin.

There was one problem. Hitler was in power, touting the superiority of the Aryan race, and Jesse Owens was black. As it happened, this talented sprinter and long jumper won four gold medals at the Olympics – 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and 4x100 meter relay.

Der Fuhrer was not pleased.

But getting Jesse to go to the Olympics was no small feat in itself. That’s the subject of “Race,” the new biopic.

Yes, the title is a double entendre.

“Race” follows Owens on his journey from Alabama to Germany as he faced prejudice and adversity to become an unequaled world champion. Americans were divided on whether their athletes should go to the 1936 games. The black community was divided on whether Owens should participate in this world event when blacks couldn’t even vote at home. What’s more, Hitler had hoped to ban black and Jewish athletes from competing in the games, but relented when threatened with a boycott.

Canadian actor Stephan James stars as this great American hero. Largely a television actor, James has had roles in “Home Again,” “When the Game Stands Tall” and “Selma.” His break in getting the lead in “Race” came when John Boyega dropped out to star in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Joining the cast, Jason Sudeikis undertakes his first dramatic role. You’ll also spot Jeremy Irons and William Hurt. Adrian Zwicker fills in as Hitler.

Owens’s accomplishments were more than just athletic prowess, said director Stephen Hopkins (“Lost In Space,” “Under Suspicion”). His grandfather was a slave, his father was a sharecropper and Owens was caught up in the politics of the time.

“When I look at the life of Jesse Owens,” Hopkins said, “I couldn’t understand how a 20-year-old can walk into a stadium of 120,000 people in Nazi Germany, the whole of America is waiting for him to win, and he doesn’t lose his head.”

As Owens said, “There ain’t no black and white; there’s only fast and slow.”

He was fast, but the truth was more than that. As Owens said of racing, “For those ten seconds you are completely free.”

Shirrel Rhoades is the movie reviewer for Cooke Communications North Carolina. He can be reached at