Actor Stephan James who stars in the upcoming Jesse Owens’ biopic, RACE, seemed to be in a “Civil Rights” character during the private tour of the Center for Civil and Human Rights recently. The 22 year-old seemed to personify the mannerisms of several prominent Civil Rights activists long gone and some still living as we walked through the Entry Tunnel, On That Day (The King Assassination), and other exhibits. As each individual, within the group of 15, went through cycles of personal introspection and visible reflection, I felt as if I was sojourning through time. Sojourning because of the displayed Jim Crow Laws… sojourning because of the displayed mugshot pictures of hundreds of activists… sojourning because of the visceral interactive “Lunch Counter Sit In” where I fought back tears and the need to jump off the seat as what seemed like hundreds of individuals screamed horrible things into my ears… sojourning because every time I looked over at Stephan, I felt as if I was staring at one of the greats w ho had fought for me. With each conversation, I felt as if I was talking to one of those who had sacrificed themselves for me.
Yet, I was interacting with the Canadian actor who had become the young John Lewis, one of the leaders of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, in the critically acclaimed and Oscar nominated 2014 historical drama, Selma. I was walking through The Movement Catches Fire exhibit with one of TIFF’s Rising Stars who had played Cummings Shakspear in the critically-acclaimed miniseries, The Book of Negroes, adapted from the award winning novel of the same name. I was getting glimpses of the actor who had joined Critic’s Choice Award nominee, Aunjanue Ellis, Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding, Jr, Academy and Emmy Award winner Louis Gossett, Jr., Lyriq Bent, Olivier Award (equivalent to Broadway’s Tony Awards) nominee Ben Chaplin, Tony and two-time Emmy Award winner, Jane Alexander, and Allan Hawco in that role.
I was digesting the harsh realities of a time period with the young man named by CBC as one of six black Canadian culture-makers in 2015. I was getting a higher understanding of the young man who undertook the portrayal of the legend who The New York Times said is “perhaps the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history”. I was getting a higher understanding of how this young adult actor had become one of the world’s heroes – the 22 year-old Jesse Owens who boldly stepped on the world stage during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany and took home four gold medals. Stephan James had personified all of these characters and they were now a part of him. When asked about the tour, James said the following.
“It’s just phenomenal to be in this museum and see such powerful things. To have hands on things that really put you in that place. For me, it’s the same kind of feeling that I got when filming Selma.”
On February 1, 2016, the day after the museum tour, I got to see James in action, at an Atlanta, GA screening of Race. On screen, he embodied the essence of the legend who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 and has had a newly discovered asteroid named 6758 Jesseowens in his honor. In the 2h 14m long film, James was The Buckeye Bullet (Ohio State track nickname) who carried the weight of his race, country, and world when he stepped on to the track in Berlin, Germany. To help prepare for his role, rising star, Stephan James trained for two months at Georgia Institute of Technology, during his spare time, while filming Selma and also spent time with Owens’ daughters. When asked about his last few films being historical dramas, he says…
“This is sort of a coincident. It wasn’t something that was planned or thought out. It’s just been an opportunity to tell incredible stories that are so important to the fabric of American and world history. So, for me, it’s just been about telling great stories.”
Focus Features’ RACE is based on the incredible true story of Jesse Owens, the legendary athletic superstar whose quest to become the greatest track and field athlete in history thrusts him onto the world stage where he faces off against Adolf Hitler’s vision of Aryan supremacy. RACE is an enthralling film about courage, determination, tolerance, and friendship, and an inspiring drama about one man’s fight to become an Olympic legend. Directed by Stephan Hopkins (Predator 2, Blown Away) written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, the compelling biographical sports-drama film brings together James, Jason Sudeikis (We’re the Millers, Semi-Pro), Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons (Appaloosa, Margin Call), Carice van Houten (Game of Thrones, Valkyrie), Shanice Banton, and Academy Award winner William Hurt (The Incredible Hulk, Into the Wild).
Born December 16, 1992, Stephan James is best known for portraying Julian on Degrassi: The Next Generation. His lengthening credits include supporting roles in TV series such as How To Be Indie (2011), The Listener (2012), and The LA Complex (2012). His TV movies and independent films include My Babysitter’s a Vampire (2011), Stanley Brooks’ Perfect Sisters, alongside Georgie Henley and Abigail Breslin, David Sutherland’s Home Again for which he earned a Canadian Screen Award nomination (Canada’s Oscars equivalent), and ABC’s 12 Dates of Christmas (2011). He was also in the inspirational, fact-based sports drama When the Game Stands Tall and Undone, in post-production, which explores the deep-rooted racial tensions within Nova Scotia communities.
Individuals can check out Stephan James’ transformative acting when RACE hits the theaters, nationwide, today. Watch the trailer below.
By Lisa George
Photo Credit: IndaHouseMedia “Jerome Dorn” and Robin Walker Marshall