Jesse Owens – an African American Olympian popular during the 1930s – was a man who became a symbol that meant different things to different people. For African Americans, he represented a great black hope at a time when racism and race relations in the United States was at its worst. For the American people at large, he represented a great athlete who would dominate the Olympic games in track and field, inspiring nationalism at a time when the entire world was at war. For Hitler and Nazi Germany, he represented a huge upset in the white supremacist dogma that was spreading throughout western Europe and destroying the lives of many non-Aryan people. For those of us looking back to those times, he represents a moment in time when the world stood still, stunned by the fact that this African American man could win such a prized possession at a time when so much pain and suffering due to racial tension was taking place in the United States and Europe.
Capturing this moment in time and all of the pain and emotion of this era is very difficult to do on film; however, screenwriter Anna Waterhouse has certainly tried to capture this moment in history in her new film Race which will debut in theaters this Friday, February 19. Here this week, she shares with Reel Focus what it was like making the film and a little about her career as a screenwriter.
Thank you, Anna for joining us this week to discuss this film about a very controversial period in history. First, tell us about yourself and how you became involved in film.
I have always loved film. Some of the most memorable moments of my life are wound up with movies. I vividly remember being sick and home from school and my parents letting me watch Gone With The Wind. I don’t think I moved a muscle for 4 hours. And the day before my first son was born, my husband and I watched Once Upon A Time in America. Now, every time I hear the soundtrack I cry. Great movies have an emotional power, like great music — they become associated with these transitional moments, in this case the night before I became a mother.
So I knew I wanted to be involved in film from a very young age. As a child, I wanted to be an actress. Then, at University, where I read English, I started producing plays. This led (somewhat surprisingly) to a successful early career as a West End theatre producer. But I still had my heart set on film and wrote screenplays feverishly on the side.
Then in 2005 I met my husband, Joe Shrapnel, who was also a writer. We began collaborating, so that’s when this phase of my life really began.
The thing that strikes me most about this film is the title, which seems to have a dual meaning. Race on one hand is what Jesse Owens is preparing to run and race on the other hand is the controversial issue plaguing this character as it relates to his skin color and socio-economic status. Was there much effort put into the title of this film?
Race is the perfect title for this film. It’s so fitting it seems inevitable now. Jesse Owens grew up in a segregated America. When he qualified for the ’36 Berlin Games he was under pressure from many people, including the African American community, to boycott. It was felt that under the Hitler regime it would send the wrong message for America to compete. But Jesse was in prime physical condition and if he’d waited four years (or as it turned out, due to the war, longer than that) it would probably have been the end of his Olympic dream. In the end, his success in Berlin sent a more powerful message than his absence. He blasted Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy by winning four gold medals and became the icon of the games. The title seemed to encapsulate in a single simple word all the rich and complex themes of a story about racial prejudice afflicting a track and field athlete.
With all of the controversy brewing in Hollywood about diversity, where do you think a film like this fits into this ongoing dialogue?
It fits right in the centre of the dialogue. Jesse is first and foremost an American hero – it’s amazing to me that it took 80 years for someone to make a major feature film about him. So I think the film industry needs to look at redressing the balance. Time and time again audiences flock to movies with African American and female protagonists. We should be making more of them.
Someone started a twitter campaign called ‘writers so white’. Joe and I were included for being white writers who wrote about an African American icon. It angered me because it implied that white people should only write about white people and black people should only write about black people. Should women only write about women, and men about men? Of course not!
If it takes a public outcry like the one surrounding the awards season to effect change, then it’s for the better. But I look forward to a time when the only issue surrounding a film is whether it’s any good, without consideration of the ethnicity or gender of the filmmakers.
Without going into too much detail, tell us what types of films you want to do in the future as you grow and expand in the industry; and who would you like to work with (actors, directors, production companies, etc.)?
We are writing an action film for director Chris McQuarrie at the moment which is a wonderful experience. Chris is a brilliant collaborator and such a champion of other writers. He makes the job fun! We have loved working with Ridley Scott on a couple of projects. We’re very impressed by the films Ben Affleck has made, particularly ARGO. And Kathryn Bigalow is someone we admire. I worked with Matt Damon when I was a theatre producer and he’s an actor I would love to work with again. And Idris Elba. Joe and I have known him for years and are always trying to find something to do together.
Photo courtesy of Anna Waterhouse.
Video courtesy of Youtube.