ATLANTA — Ambassador Andrew Young is a living link to the late, legendary track megastar Jesse Owens. He regaled the red carpet media prior to movie premiere of Race as he waxed poetic about how Jesse Owens, a pioneer in sports even before the more celebrated Jackie Robinson, helped make him the man that he would become later as a confidante to Martin Luther King Jr., an ambassador to the U.N. under President Carter and a two-time mayor of Atlanta.
“Let me tell you: Jesse Owens’ story made me who I am today,” Young began. “I grew up 50 yards from the headquarters of the Nazi Party. I was born in 1932. Jesse Owens ran this in 1936. And my dad took me to go see this when I was a kid. And he said to me ‘white supremacy is a sickness. And you don’t let sick people get you upset.’ And he used Jesse Owens as an example. He said ‘look, when Hitler walked out (after Owens won his first gold medal in the Olympics, shattering the myth of Aryan supremacy), Jesse didn’t lose his cool. He just went out and broke three more world records.’ So I knew about Jesse since I was four years old and he’s been my hero ever since.”
The movie, which opens Feb 19, set just a few years before Adolf Hitler began what became World War II, told of an impoverished Owens of Cleveland enduring oppressive racism at The Ohio State University, which prepared him to succeed under similar conditions Nazi Germany.
“This is a film about determination, courage, tolerance and friendship. Tonight we’ll go back in time and see how Jesse’s journey impacted the entire world,” said the evening’s moderator and “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star Kim Fields.
Fields and Young was joined at the premiere with the likes Ludacris and wife Eudoxie, prolific producer Will Packer, Kathleen Bertrand of the Bronzelens Film Festival, other celebrities and, of course, Stephan James, who starred as Owens and tried to embody him while telling his story. James, who portrayed another legend, Congressman John Lewis, in the Academy Award-nominated film Selma last year, admitted it was disheartening stepping Owens’ shoes. He often had to step back from the character and not get so emotionally involved in how brutal the treatment of Owens was here in America, living with de facto segregation the North in Columbus, Ohio — much less how he would be treated in Berlin.
“Jesse is a testament to that (courage and success in the face of near insurmountable odds). You’re talking about a man in the middle of the Great Depression here in America, and then went over to Berlin in German and defeated all odds at at time when Hitler said no black person and no Jew would win anything,” James said. “So it’s really incredible.”
Take a look at the photographic highlights of the red carpet premiere of the Focus Features film Race.