Interview: “Race” Director Stephen Hopkins on Jesse Owens

Posted on February 17, 2016 at 3:50 pm

Race” is the story of Jesse Owens, one of the greatest athletes of all time, and an African-American whose four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics showed the world that Hitler’s propaganda — and America’s Jim Crow laws — could not deny the reality of Owens’ ability, honor, and dignity. In an interview, director Stephen Hopkins talked about why making the film was so important to him and what he wanted audiences to understand about the events that occurred nearly 80 years ago.

One of the reasons I wanted to make the film is there are so few reluctant heroes nowadays. I think most people who are at the forefront of the media tend to be there not for the admirable act. When I was growing up there were great heroes like Mohammed Ali or Nelson Mandela or there were mavericks in the world of rock stars and actors and filmmakers that artist and I don’t know who my kids and my grandkids are going to look up to in the same sort of way. I was originally offered to make a story about his whole life which I don’t think you can ever do in a film really so I kind of honed down to these three years. I’d love to have done more about his childhood and his background which I think has a lot to do with why he was so full of steel and grit like he was. And obviously he had an anger inside of him as a young African-American man in America in those days where racism was a part of the institutional legality.

Copyright 2016 Focus Features
Copyright 2016 Focus Features

So he is a conundrum because he really ran for himself and his family more than for his country. I think running for America was tough in those days because you would be a patriot but you were treated so poorly in your own country and he sort of followed his own compass really and did what he thought was right. And his wife Ruth was very important to him. And I kind of wanted to introduce maybe a younger generation to a hero from what seems to be a simpler time but obviously was a crazy political arena. One of my first questions to myself as I went through his story was how it was possible for a young African-American man to walk into such a hostile gladiatorial arena like the Olympics stadium in Berlin and function and hold himself together and held his head up high and explode for the necessary critical 10 seconds just at the right time and start winning these medals in front of Hitler and this hostile crowd.

He came from an incredibly tough background. His grandfather was a slave, his father was a share cropper which was basically a slave in those days and he grew up in a very, very tough environment with a great family. And often they would eat meat once a month if they were lucky. They grew up in the Great Depression, so whether you were African-American or not, you were suffering and that gave him so much. He almost died himself as a kid; he lost a couple of siblings through malnutrition and illness. And all this he used to forge someone who has so much dignity and so much steel that it just makes me think what the great hero he was.

At the same time, we don’t want him to be a saint. I hate it when you have a hero who doesn’t have flaws because there is nothing to overcome. The story in the background of what he had to go through to win makes the Berlin part of the film work. It would not be the same if you didn’t know what he went through and how high the stakes were before he got there and how clever the Nazis were in collaboration with Avery Brundage to hide what they were doing and to use this giant propaganda machine to put their pretend political party on the map. Because really they were just gangsters and thugs and they were trying to make out as if they were a real movement and a real political party and they were branding a corporate sporting event for the first time. In a sense they created the modern social media idea with live worldwide radio and filming everything and shipping the film quickly around the world, inventing closed-circuit TV and inventing all the technology to support their event they accidentally made the Olympics into the Jesse Owens Olympics and they accidentally made him the world first ever athlete superstar.

Hopkins provides fascinating behind-the-scenes drama as filmmaker/propagandist Leni Riefenstahl insists on telling the truth about Owens’ astonishing performance, though Joseph Goebbels wants her to suppress it.

I wanted to see it through her eyes because she was an artist born in Nazi Germany, or in pre-Nazi Germany, and became prominent during the Nazi reign and she was a woman which at the time was very much a second-class citizen. In the Nazi idea, they were supposed to stay home and cook and take care of the children. She was dazzled by Hitler and she was Hitler’s favorite but when she made this film she stuck to her ideals and she made Jesse the hero in the center of the movie. She actually had to leave the country soon after making the film because the Nazis were horrified about what she did. They actually made her cut all of Jesse Owens out of the film and then they looked at it and they realized how foolish they looked and they had to grudgingly put it all back in.

It’s all very well for all of us to look back and go “Oh I wouldn’t have gone along with that,” but I think the Nazis were very clever at covering up and their reign of terror was so complete. She should have known better, she should have been a better person and not helped to glamorize them but she was seeing Nazi Germany through an artist’s eyes, I think. And she openly admits that she was a Nazi at the time and then she lost faith in them and had to leave the country because she became so unpopular after making Olympia.

And he puts Jesse Owens’s story in the context of the negotiations that led to America’s participation in the Olympics, over the objections of those who did not want to appear to endorse Hitler.

Avery Brundage is more of a villain than Leni Riefenstahl. He knew what was going on and he helped the Nazis, then covered it up to serve himself. He was actually much more a villain than I think I was able to portray but it is hard to prove all of it. He was a really bad guy.

And there are unexpected good guys as well. Owens’ first-ever stay in unsegregated housing was in Berlin, which was a revelation for him. And he was befriended by one of the German athletes.

I wanted to see these events from as many different angles as I could. Jesse’s best friend became Carl ‘Luz’ Long, the German long jumper. They were very, very close. We have all the letters. They wrote to each other all the time and saw each other. Actually the last letter that Carl Long wrote to Jesse was from Sicily where the Americans were about to invade where he was fighting. His last letter says, “I think the Americans are coming, I’m probably not going to survive, would you go to Germany and find my son and tell him I was never a Nazi.” And then he did get killed and Jesse went searching for his son for years after the war and found him and gave him the letters. So the stories are are so rich and complicated. That’s a whole movie by itself I think, that one.

The movie also shows how competitive running has changed since the 1930’s.

It’s interesting, a lot of the Olympic coaches worked with us on this film and they said if Jesse had the nutrition, the shoes, the running tracks they have nowadays and the techniques they have he would be possibly beating Usain Bolt. He was such a freak of athletic nature. Because in those days they had to run with leather shoes on with no socks and the shoes would cling to their feet but basically with nails in the bottom.

No socks because socks would make them slip and they wanted the leather to sort of cling to their feet, but they were very painful to wear. And the track was made out of ashes and grit so if it was wet you would be running in mud basically. And nowadays the tracks are all so sprung and made of a type of material that these tiny spikes cling onto. And if they are wet it doesn’t affect them.

While he re-created some of the locations digitally, Hopkins was able to film parts of the movie in the imposing arena built by the Nazis for the Olympics.

All of the other arenas obviously don’t exist anymore so we re-created them exactly from the plans and stuff digitally. But we shot in the real Olympic arena. We shot half in Berlin, half in Montréal. So we shot in the real stadium and it visually affected the scenes because it’s an edifice that’s built to intimidate. You are meant to feel small and scared. We are very lucky to have been able to shoot in there and all around. We shot the scene where Jesse goes to meet Hitler and he refuses to meet him, we shot in the real place where it actually happened. In the room behind Hitler’s box which is still in the stadium, and we shot under his box we shot all over the stadium, underneath it, in the rooms, all around it. Every so often that they have referendum in Berlin whether to pull it down or not but it is an important piece of history I think and for better or worse it’s an edifice to something there.

The movie also shows the importance of Owens’ relationship to Larry Snyder (played by Jason Sudeikis), his Ohio State coach.

I think what they learned from each other was interesting. I think Jesse learned the psychology of winning and the psychology of not listening to other people and listening to his one heart and obviously to cut himself off from how the crowd was feeling about him, to really concentrate and focus, because he just loved to run. That’s what he did. It just made him feel free of all the burdens of what it would be like to have been a poor African-American in the Great Depression in American in 1933, which must have been hell on earth. And Larry learned that you can’t treat athletes like they are robots. They became such good friends over their whole lives. Larry was a very private person. He was very edgy and funny and charming. It’s very difficult to find out much about him. I loved having Jason in that role because he’s just got an edge to him, and his comedy has an edge. His comedy has a little darkness to it. And he’s a sports freak man, he just loves sports. So does Stephan so the two of them bonded on that and you could tell.

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