BY NY MAGEE
Stephan James wasn’t director Stephen Hopkins first choice to play African-American athlete Jesse Owens in the upcoming biopic “Race.’’
John Boyega was the frontrunner for the role but then he landed a major part in a little film called “Star Wars,” and James secured the role.
“He’s a great talent, and he reminds me so much of Jesse,” Hopkins said of James. “He comes off as a very sweet and saintly individually but inside, he’s made of steel, and he’s got the anger that you’d have if you’re an African-American living in America in those days.”
“He has a grace around him,” Hopkins added. “We lucked out because the guy really understands honor and dignity and he’s willing to stick himself out there to play this story.”
The sports-drama centers on Owen’s early life leading up to and including his triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, where he won four gold medals.
“I was attracted to just him as a person. I learned so many things about him as a man, as a father.
It just blew me away to learn about the type of humanitarian he was. He was a person who treated everyone exactly how he wanted to be treated. A person who was colorblind,’’ said James, 21.
“All he saw was the love for his sport. Through that, he was able to transcend not only the sport but the world, and that’s what brought me to him mostly. Everyone thinks of Jesse Owens and they hear this big athlete, they think of this big superstar – fastest man alive. But to me I was like, ‘How do I capture him as a human being and show people a level a humanity to this hero?’’
James said he gained insight about Owens from his daughters, who were “very instrumental in the filmmaking process from the beginning.”
“I think that when people see this film, they’ll see why it really doesn’t matter what you look like or where you come from. You’re fully able to accomplish great things. There were so many barriers that Jesse broke down, simply because he loved running. He loved it so bad that he wasn’t going to let nothing or no one stop him,’’ James added.
“Race’’ opened in theaters nationwide on Feb. 19.