In the middle of his hectic day at Ohio State University, Stephan James – the star of Race – made a pilgrimage to see the Jesse Owens statue on campus.
“It was so big, so awesome” he said of statue of the larger-than-life Buckeye Bullet outside the track and field stadium named in his honor. “And I feel the love for him here (in Columbus).”
Stephan also felt the pressure to get Jesse just right: The way he walked, talked, laughed and, of course, the unique way in which he ran.
“I never forgot the greatness of Jesse Owens and I couldn’t mess that up,” said the young actor from Canada.
Judging by the laughter, cheers and even a few tears during the filled-to-capacity showing of Race at the Mershon Auditorium on Monday night, Stephan and the cast and crew of Race – which opens nationally on Feb. 19 – got it right.
The big-budget biopic showed Jesse’s rise from humble roots in Cleveland, the love story of Jesse and Ruth, his fight against segregation and racism in college and in Berlin and how he rose above it through talent, determination and a surprisingly quick sense of humor. Who knew Jesse was so funny?
Spoiler Alert: Jesse wins four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and shows the world that all men and women are created equal – and some just happen to be really fast.
Joining Stephan at the premiere, and during the day for a series of press conferences, meetings with students and a walk down the red carpet, were two of Jesse’s three daughters, Gloria and Marlene. Beverly was not able to attend.
“What I want people to remember about my father is that he did not judge people by the color or their skin,” Gloria said. “He was not angry and resentful and he always felt he was a part of this country.”
Gloria was born on Aug. 8, 1932 and is depicted Race as a toddler. She is a living reminder and history lesson about how racism and segregation once subjugated an entire race of people.
“When (Jesse) was a student here he couldn’t live in the dorms or eat in the restaurants on High Street,” OSU President Michael Drake told the crowd of more than 2,000. “We have made great progress, but we still have a great deal of progress left.”
Gloria and Marlene are both Ohio State graduates.
“I came to Ohio State in 1949 which was around the time it was no longer segregated,” Gloria said. “I lived in Mack Hall; I was one of four black students in the dorm.”
Marlene arrived at Ohio State in 1957.
“Things were very different,” she said. “It was much more integrated and there was camaraderie between the students.” She lived in Canfield Hall – and most of her roommates were white.
“It wasn’t a problem,” Marlene said. “The mother of one of my roommates did have a problem with it, but my roommate told her mother too bad, get over it. Campus was integrated, but we didn’t do a lot of mixed socializing back then. The black fraternities and sororities did their own thing.”
Marlene was elected Homecoming Queen in 1960, the first African American to won this honor. A photo of her in her Homecoming dress is on the second floor of the Ohio Union.
The Jesse Owns story is about so much more than track.
Could an African-American be the President or Athletic Director of Ohio State if Jesse, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson hadn’t blazed the trail that led to the Civil Rights Act?
“Probably not,” said OSU Athletic Director Gene Smith as he stood on the red carpet, after making sure to get a photo with Stephan, Gloria and Marlene. “He was so important to the social fabric of our society and set the stage for changing people’s minds about African Americans.”
Because of this, about 1,000 Ohio State students, including 250 student-athletes, were invited to the Race premiere.
“His message is one of fortitude, being determined and persistent and resilient,” said Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston, the OSU Vice President of Student Life. “And it’s important for all our students to hear this.”
Becoming Jesse was a process for Stephan, who spent a lot of time with Gloria, Marlene and Beverly.
“I got a lot of his personality from his daughters,” Stephan said, adding that he too was inspired by the legacy of Jesse.
“This was a man who accomplished incredible things during extraordinary times,” he said. “It’s almost inconceivable that he could go to Berlin and win four gold medals in the face of such adversity. If he could do it, there’s no excuse for me not to be great.”
All the adversity and pressure Jesse faced in the run up to Berlin, including his difficult decision on whether or not to even compete and represent a country that considered him a second-class citizen, add layers of drama and emotion to Race and make it so much more than a sports movie. It’s a movie about the human experience – and 80 years after his triumphs in Berlin, Jesse could once again break down barriers and bring people together.
“I learned a lot (from the process of making the movie),” said Marlene, who along with her sisters had input on the final script. “I learned about all the pressures he faced in Berlin.”
“We never knew how difficult it was,” Gloria added.
“My father was a pioneer,” Marlene said. “The way he conducted himself changed perceptions about who we are.”