"Not black history,” “Race” star Stephan James tweeted recently. “Just history.” It’s the kind of statement that speaks volumes on its own but is ripe for elaboration.
“You look at a story like ‘Selma’ [in which James also appeared] and you go, ‘That’s not just black history. Martin Luther King didn’t just affect black people; he affected people all over the world,” the 22-year-old, Toronto-native actor says at the Park Hyatt. “And it’s the same thing with Jesse Owens. He’s not a black hero. He’s not an American hero. He’s a world hero. I look at it as they’re so much bigger than black icons.”
It’s a strong assessment of “Race,” opening Friday, featuring a subtly breakout turn from James as Jesse Owens, whose pursuit of Olympic track-and-field gold intersected with the 1936 games in Berlin, where for a while the U.S. considered boycotting due to the rise of the murderous Third Reich. Owens, who was black, also received pressure to stay home to make a statement against the white-supremacist beliefs of Adolf Hitler and Nazism—it’s no spoiler (this happened 80 years ago, after all) to say that Owens decided to compete and took home four gold medals (and became best friends with a German runner), solidifying his status as the fastest person on the planet at the time.
“I think a film about Jesse Owens would have been relevant five years from now. Five years ago,” James says when I mention the sadly modern relevance of “Race,” particularly with its reminders of the long history of racism in this country. “Tomorrow. Next week.”