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Talking to Director Stephen Hopkins About Race

Race tells the incredible story of the track and field athlete Jesse Owens and how he came to win four gold medals in front of Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. We talk to the director Stephen Hopkins about why he considers Race more a political thriller than a sports film, the parallels between Nazi propaganda and social media and how he knew he’d found the right actor to play Owens. Do you think audiences will be surprised about how little they know about the details of Jesse Owens’ story? I mean there's certainly a lot in there that I wasn’t aware of. I certainly was. There's tons more. There's a load in his life before this and his life after this were incredible as well, and then there's lots more about his life. I was approached to make a film sort of about his whole life, which I think is pretty impossible to do with anyone. I narrowed it down to these three years because as I researched it sort of blew my mind a bit, what was going on. It felt like such a modern movie. Not in terms necessarily of relevant topics but just how the Nazis kind of grabbed the social media of the time and decided to make themselves look like a real political party. Then of course they accidentally made Jesse Owens the first ever world superstar of anything. So, you chose to focus just on the years leading up to the 1936 games. What specifically made you home in on that period? Yeah, I thought it was the most exciting. I think you'll agree it's not really a sports film as such, there's less than three minutes of sports in the film, but there's a lot of psychology. I think sports psychology and even psychology are quite intertwined. It's a bit of a political thriller in a way with all that's going on. This guy caught up in this madness all around him when the world was going haywire, being used as a political pawn. I wondered who he was really running for. His three daughters came on four years ago, right at the beginning of the thing- Gloria, Beverly, and Marlene. They were able to guide us through all the stuff written about Jesse- because a lot of it's rubbish, you know? Like with any famous person, people make stuff up. And so we sort of got to understand him as well as we could but he was quite a quiet, graceful kind of guy. He's a bit of an enigma still, when you come out of the film. Yes. As was Larry Snyder actually, who’s played by Jason Sudeikis in the film. He's impossible to find out anything about. He's a really private guy. Ohio State opened their vaults for us and they've hardly got anything on him there. I've got lots of film of him and Jesse together from This is Your Life and all that kind of stuff. Though when you look into his world, he's really a very private sort of ladies' man and a charming guy. He was kind of a smooth, interesting guy. He had a lot of demons I think and was a driven guy. The details of the story are so fantastical that if it wasn't a true story you wouldn't believe it. It's funny, I had to remind everyone about that while we were making it, and hopefully the audience realize it too, because it feels like a fairy tale, doesn't it? I know what you mean, it's almost too good to be true in a way. You know the baddest of the bad guys gets beaten and humiliated by the humblest guy in the world. How do you think that the film engages with the current dialogue surrounding race relations in America? I think the race conversation is a constant one here, it's ongoing. When I met Stephan [James] who plays Jesse in the film, he was just about to go and do Selma. I had to point out that the '60s is so different from America in the '30s. In the '60s there was hope. There was hope that the activism would pay off and African Americans would get to vote and remove segregation. In the '30s that was not the case, it was never going to happen. How did you know that you'd found the right actor to play Jesse when Stephan auditioned for the role? He was one one of the first people I ever saw, which is a bit shocking. Of course, I ignored that, I thought, That can't be true. The more people I saw, the more I realized he was the guy. There's something about Stephan which is graceful. He's got an old head on his shoulders. He just had a sort of simplicity of saying things that I think Jesse did. I think we all, I certainly strive for simplicity and clarity, in how I see the world. Most very smart people I know, have that. Stephan is much older than his years, I think. This was a big deal for a young actor. For any actor it's a big deal for what you have to do in the film, but for your first lead in a film, it's quite a whopper. It never really phased him. You filmed on the streets of Berlin in the actual Olympic stadium where the Games took place. Was that authenticity important to you? It was incredibly helpful to do it. There was a couple of amazing moments. There was a moment when Jesse comes off after winning the hundred meters and he goes into the bowels, which is really in the stadium, and he walked up those stairs and walked into that room, where Hitler had to refuse to meet him. There's something really goose-bumpy and creepy about it. That was something that helped the actors. I guess reminded everyone the legacy of it all. The Germans are very clear and still feel a lot of shame for what happened. They're very aware of it, and shooting in Berlin was fantastic. Was there a particular scene that you knew that you had to get right that anchored the whole film? I've done a couple of movies about real people before, and you have to be really careful you don't try and do an educational documentary. It's got to stand up as a film by itself. But you're trapped in history, in the order of things. Really, I've tried to hinge most of the scenes on Jesse's and Larry's relationship in the film. I think between them you saw a lot of what the story’s about and what human failings and strengths saw them through it, I think that's the most human part of the film. What about the Leni Riefenstahl documentary Olympia, which plays a big part in the film? Had you seen that before you took on the job? Oh yeah, as a film director it’s one of the most amazing films ever, I think. The whole stadium was designed for the shape of the screen. She had a hundred and forty cameras shooting. They invented closed circuit TV, they invented all sorts of camera dollies, and electric cars, and things that had never happened before, to make this film happen. She made Jesse the hero of the film and the Nazis were furious and told her to cut it all out, so she did, under duress. Then they looked at it and realized how stupid they looked and then grudgingly they put it back in. Then she was practically thrown out of Germany after that. No one else wanted her either because she was a devoted Nazi. She admitted that she was dazzled by the Nazis and Hitler. She was an artist born in a place, I think. This is the first feature film about Owens' life for the big screen. Why do you think that is? I think one of the things I've talked about, there's so much story going on just in the film that we've got here. I think Jesse was quite a difficult character to read. He avoided the spotlight unlike people nowadays, who live for it. I think he was shy and he was humble, but on the inside, I think he was made of steel. He had a very tough childhood. His grandfather was a slave, his father was a sharecropper, which was basically a slave. They grew up in the depression in America when fifty percent of the country was unemployed. It was a really, really tough life, he grew up with. It really hardened him. I think he had the rage of any African American man of that time, let alone in the depression, and with everything else piled on top of it. It just fuelled him. He harnessed it and said he only really felt free when he was running.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alice Wasley

Alice Wasley is a freelance writer based in Sydney. When she’s not watching as many movies as she can get away with, she writes for a range of publications including GQ Australia and Marie Claire Australia. You can follow her on Instagram: @alicewasley or visit her website: www.alicewasley.com.

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