Tag Archives: Stephan James

Race Relations

Jesse Owens biopic reminds us of runner and historic 1936 Olympics

Race

Starring Stephan James & Jason Sudeikis

Directed by Stephen Hopkins

PG-13

No one had ever seen anyone run anything like Jesse Owens.

The sharecropper’s son from rural Alabama began burning up the track in junior high. By the early 1930s he was setting new championship records for Ohio State University, and in 1936 he wowed the world, where he brought home four gold medals—for track, relay race and long jump—from the Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany.

Race tells Owens’ tale, and its simple-sounding title packs a double meaning—about his fleet feet as well as the spotlight on him as a black man in a historically loaded moment in time, where he faced discrimination, racism and the pressure to represent his country and his “people.”

In the movie’s opening sequence, as Owens (Stephan James) prepares to leave home for college, his mother touches a scar on his bare chest, the leftover of a childhood tumor that almost claimed his young life. “God spared you for a reason,” she tells him.

That reason, the movie leads us to believe, was to stand up for what’s right, to walk (and run) humbly with your God-given gifts—and to stick it to the Nazis.

In 1936, the movie shows us, the United States was conflicted about whether to participate in the Summer Olympics at all. Germany had won the bid to host the events five years earlier, two years before Nazi Germany came to power. Adolph Hitler’s goal of a blue-eyed, blonde-haired master “Ayran race” was already making nasty international ripples. When a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee pays a diplomatic visit to Berlin to negotiate terms of America’s participation, he sees signs outside the gargantuan Berlin Sports Center reading “No Jews or Dogs.”

German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice von Houten) keeps the camera rolling for the 1936 Olympics.

Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), expecting his highly trained athletes to dominate, wants to use the Olympics as the ultimate world stage to showcase German grandeur. He’s hired his country’s acclaimed filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice von Houten), to document everything from start to finish.

Jason Sudeikis

Director Stephen Hopkins takes a mostly straightforward, meat-and-potatoes approach, especially to Owens’ life in Ohio, where we meet his wife-to-be Ruth (Shanice Banton) and his coach, Larry Synder (Saturday Night Live TV vet Jason Sudeikis, very strong in a non-comedic role). The movie doesn’t really come alive until Owens arrives in Berlin, specifically when he first steps onto the futuristic field and is awestruck by a hundred thousand cheering spectators, a massive dirigible overhead blocking out the sun, Nazi banners, athletes giving “Sieg Heil!” salutes—and the sight of dur füher in his boxed seat.

Owens was an enormous part of the history of the 1936 Olympics, where his achievements delivered a big black slap to Germany’s smug Nazi face about their so-called racial “superiority.” A subplot about his friendship with their top athlete, Lutz Long, represents the bridges—instead of barriers—of the Olympics’ loftiest ideal.

After the Olympics, the great Owens came home a winner and a new record-setter, but we’re showed how his four gold medals didn’t exactly change the world—for him or anyone else. As the movie and the Black History Month timing of its release reminds us, there was—and remains still—a much longer race to be run.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Marching Across Time

‘Selma’ connects past and present at pivotal civil rights flashpoint

SELMA

David Oyelowo (second from left) stars as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in ‘Selma’

Selma

Starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo & Tom Wilkinson

Directed by Ava DuVernay

PG-13

It depicts events that happened half a century ago, but the drumbeat—and the heartbeat—of the present pounds loud and clear in Selma.

Set in the weeks leading up to March 1965, it’s a moving, powerful portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King and his passionate work to turn back the toxic tide of segregation and discrimination against African-Americans, especially in the South.

British actor David Oyelowo does a phenomenal job as King, conveying the combustive cocktail of faith, focus, outrage, diplomacy and drive that fueled his mission leading up to the “peaceful protest” marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to bring national attention to voting rights. His King is no martyred saint, but a charismatic, pragmatic leader who can take sit-down meetings with the President in the White House, as well as a husband, father and family man trying to keep his own “house” from crumbling from pressures inside and out.

SELMA

Carmen Ejogo plays King’s wife, Coretta.

A scene in which King’s wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo, also terrific), confronts him over his well-known infidelities is a masterfully staged, perfectly written and expertly performed moment in which the silence becomes as important as—and even more weighty than—the words.

SELMA

Oprah Winfrey plays a civil rights activist.

The protests at the heart of the movie may have been “nonviolent,” but the event that came to be known as Bloody Sunday, March 7, was an episode of horrific, horrendous brutality, as hundreds of marchers were attacked by state and local police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with tear gas, clubs wrapped in barbed wire, and horsewhips. Director Ava DuVernay, a former Hollywood publicist who worked her way up through the studio system via music documentaries and indie films, depicts the one-sided confrontation as a melee of swirling smoke, raining blows, sickening thuds and crumbling bodies.

King is the movie’s central figure, but note that it doesn’t bear his name. It’s about more than the man; it’s about the movement he inspired. And specifically, it’s about how the crucial flashpoint of that movement came at one moment in time, in one specific place, and that place was Selma.

And, appropriately, there’s a big supporting cast that helps get it there, including Tom Wilkinson as Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson; Tim Roth as Alabama Gov. George Wallace; Oprah Winfrey as activist Annie Lee Cooper; Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover; Ledici Young as gospel singer Mahalia Jackson; and numerous other actors, including Martin Sheen, rapper Common, Stephen Root, Niecy Nash, Cuba Gooding Jr., Giovanni Ribisi, Andrè Holland, Stephan James and Wendell Pierce, portraying other real-life players in the drama.

SELMA

King meets in the White House with Pres. Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).

The filmmakers didn’t have access to King’s archive of speeches, so his orations are paraphrased—to magnificent effect. And there have been questions and quibbles about the movie’s authenticity and precise historical accuracy, especially about its portrayal of King’s relationship with L.B.J. But leave the parsing of small details to small minds. As the 50th anniversary of the events depicted in Selma approaches, this big-issue movie—with policemen beating and killing unarmed black men, streets filled with peaceful protesters, and repressive voting laws that disenfranchise minorities—feels chillingly contemporary, all too real, and monumental in more ways than one. Selma profoundly reminds us that while the marching may lead to the mountaintop, we still, sadly, haven’t fully made it there yet.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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