The timing couldn't be better. Race, the Jesse Owens story, arrives in theatres Friday, a week before the #OscarsSoWhite. It gives audiences a chance to vote with their wallets for something multicultural: a Canadian co-production starring a Torontonian, Stephan James, about a seminal black American athlete who won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, at the height of Nazism.
The contemporary echoes are deafening: black excellence; racism both overt and veiled; the debate between boycotts versus participation. There's even a correlation to the Olympics in Sochi, when Vladimir Putin tried to ban homosexuals. For Pete's sake, people, it's called Race.
Do I wish the movie were tougher, less straight up the middle? Sure. But the filmmakers opted for the educational approach, and it's easy to see why. Until he read for the part, James himself barely knew who Owens was. (The actor is 22.) The last feature film about Owens came out 80 years ago, and it was made by Leni Riefenstahl, as Nazi propaganda.
In an interview in Toronto last week, Jason Sudeikis, who plays Owens's coach, Larry Snyder, knew he'd get questions about the film's timing, and had a ready answer. "I would say the release harmonizes with the conversations that are going on," he says. "Which are more important than any trophies for make believe. I'm proud that this story shows the power of participation. Owens was pulled and pushed in different directions, but he made the decision to go [to the Olympics], and he changed the world."
The participation "need not be an awards show," Sudeikis continues. "It can be on your college campus, or at your own dinner table, when a grandma says some ignorant stuff. Participate in the conversation. Because to close yourself off takes away that amazing opportunity, the shift in consciousness that can come out of the agitation between two human beings."
James, who previously appeared in the film Selma (as civil-rights leader John Lewis) and the CBC miniseries The Book of Negroes, is more cautious about taking on that conversation. Handsome, polite, preternaturally composed (maybe he's had media training, maybe he's simply careful), he tends toward the generic. "I think this film would be timely at any time," he says in a separate interview. "It's always a good time to tell the story of Jesse Owens."
He prefers to relate his own straight-up history. Middle son of three. Did impressions of his family members to make them laugh. Took acting classes at Toronto's Jarvis Collegiate. Landed a role on Degrassi: The Next Generation. Thinks that the tattoo on the inside of his right bicep – "Know yourself, love yourself," in Swahili – is "just an important message to tell yourself every day, to stay true to yourself and to love yourself." Was tickled to meet Barack and Michelle Obama at a White House screening of Selma.
"I felt like I was in somebody's house, for real," James says. "We drank wine in the Blue Room, toured the Oval Office. Michelle was like, 'Popcorn's here, restroom's over there.' They were very casual."
When James's agent sent him the Race script, he read it, "like many other young black actors, I'm sure," he says. "I felt compelled to be part of the story, really in any capacity. I could have been the best friend, the janitor who cleaned the school, I didn't care. I just wanted to be in the film." (He could have sold that janitor line, too, if he didn't have "Destined for bigger things" written all over him.)
When he landed Race, James was still shooting Selma. He read and watched everything he could. On his days off, he trained for hours on the track at Georgia Tech. First he had to learn to run fast, then he had to learn to run like Owens pre-coaching – then he had to incorporate how Owens ran after coaching – all while wearing period leather shoes he calls "ballet slippers with three-inch spikes. They were dreadful." He also spent days talking to Owens's two daughters. "They gave me a human perspective on him," James says. "He was daddy, and they loved their father."
James does admit that, walking into the Olympic Stadium in Berlin to shoot the race scenes, "I was almost beside myself. I thought, 'This is 2014. I'm completely safe, and there's no one in here. Why do I feel this way?' It gave me a fraction of what Jesse must have felt when he went in." But he hastens to point out that much has changed: the street outside the stadium is now called Jesse Owens Alley; a lounge inside is hung with Owens photos.
In his brief career, James has played many racially charged scenes. While making Selma, he walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, recreating the infamous police brutality that occurred there, alongside extras who'd lived it.
In Race, Owens endures a humiliating moment in Manhattan, after his Olympic triumph, when he's forbidden to walk in the front door of the hotel that's hosting a celebration of him. But asked how those scenes make James feel, he demurs.
"Yes, reading the scripts, there were things I was angry about, sad about," he says. "But when I'm doing these movies, it's not about Stephan. You can't bring your feelings and emotions into it. You have to authentically dive into the character – the good, the bad and the ugly – and be in the moment."
James feels confident about his future. "I've worked with enough people on enough things that I'm not scared," he says. "I feel ready for whatever is supposed to come my way. I want to do it all."
But given #OscarsSoWhite, I have to press him: He'd like to do it all, but does he think he'll have the opportunity to? "This conversation is so much bigger than any one person's opinion," he replies. "It's a collective thing. We have to look inside ourselves, and find things that unite us, rather than all the things that separate us. It's not a secret that there are clear issues with diversity in the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences], and in film and television at large. It's bigger than just a black-and-white thing. Women are having problems finding roles, there are problems with ageism. But I'm glad the dialogue is happening. That this discussion is out there. Hopefully we'll see effective, positive change."
James does assert one thing, boldly and without hesitation: He'd like to play Spider-Man. He mentions it twice – halfway through our interview, and then again at the end. Whatever else he doesn't say, he makes sure we hear that.