NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Friday, February 19, 2016, 7:00 AM
Marlene Owens Rankin and Beverly Owens Prather were not born when their father, Jesse Owens, made history 80 years ago in Berlin at the 1936 Olympics in front of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, winning four gold medals in track and field competition.
But during a screening of the Stephen Hopkins-directed “Race” – the Jesse Owens biopic which opens in theaters Friday – Rankin and Prather say that at times they found it unsettling to watch the events unfold on the screen before them.
“It was fascinating to see and in a way difficult to watch the pressures that were on (Owens) for so long. But he handled them so well. It was still hard to know and to learn that,” says Rankin. “The only way I knew that was by looking at the film. But it’s hard to see anyone you love go through such pain.”
“Race” – which depicts a three-year period from when Owens enrolls at Ohio State University through his historic turn at the ’36 Summer Games — is the culmination of a project that began five years ago when Rankin and Prather say that French filmmaker Jean-Charles Levy and his friend, French businessman Luc Dayan, approached the Owens family through the Jesse Owens Foundation. Levy and Dayan (both producers of “Race”) wanted to make a film about Owens’ life, and when the opportunity finally presented itself, they helped usher the project forward. Owens’ daughters, however, were very much a part of the decision-making process and script development.
“We had full script approval. We participated fully in the making of the film and in the content,” says Marlene Rankin.
“We’re so happy with this that it’s truthful. It is his life at that time,” says Prather. “Because it’s truthful there should be no doubt in anybody’s mind. It really captured the essence of the man.”
One of the film’s plotlines involves the relationship between Owens (played by Stephan James) and his Ohio State track coach, Larry Snyder (who is played by “Saturday Night Live” alum Jason Sudeikis). Rankin says that she and her sisters got to know the real-life Snyder well, and that the coach and his star pupil maintained a lifelong friendship following the Olympics.
“I went to Ohio State as well, as did all of us,” says Marlene of she and her two siblings (the oldest daughter, Gloria Hemphill, was 4 when Jesse Owens competed in Berlin). “I knew Larry Snyder. He was like a part of the family. He and my father maintained a relationship far into the future.” Marlene adds that when her father appeared on the famous TV show “This is Your Life” in California, Marlene flew out to Hollywood with Snyder to see the taping.
For all the historical significance generated by Owens’ performance, his daughters say Jesse Owens was never one to relive his Olympic glory after he returned from Europe.
“That’s a question that most people ask,” says Marlene. “When we were together, when he was home, we were together as a family, and the only thing we talked about was us. He wanted to know what we had been doing, how school was going and all those things. For him to sit and talk about his accomplishments – no, he didn’t do that.”
Rankin and Prather praised James’ performance as well as that of Shanice Banton, who plays their mother, Ruth Solomon. Banton says that she “didn’t know much about the Jesse Owens story” before she began shooting the film, but pored over books and research material on the track legend and his wife to prepare for her role.
That the film only encompasses a short window of Owens’ life did not disappoint his family.
“I think they packed the most significant part of who he was,” says Marlene. “And that person carried on into the future. They did magnificent job of condensing it. We’re delighted that the film has been done. It was something that we had hoped for, and we’re happy that it happened.”