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Jesse Owens Biopic Gets Boost From Family

Mister Smith intros biopic at Berlin Olympic Stadium where Jesse Owens won four gold medals

The daughter of Olympic athlete Jesse Owens, Marlene Owens Rankin, was at the Berlin Olympic Stadium on Thursday to attend the international sales launch of “Race,” the biopic about her father. Variety spoke to her and Stephen Hopkins, the director of the film, whose cast Jeremy Irons and Geoffrey Rush have just joined.

Owens Rankin, sitting yards from the spot where Adolf Hitler watched the 1936 Olympics in which Owens won four gold medals, said the film can deliver an uplifting message to young moviegoers.

The message “is about the human spirit — about its endurance and vulnerability — but also the success you can achieve when you are motivated, and persevere in the face of adversity,” she said. “So, hopefully, kids who are underachieving and who lack hope will be motivated by his life and successes in spite of all he went through.”

The film, which was being introduced to buyers for the first time in Berlin by its sales agent Mister Smith Entertainment, tracks Owens’ progress leading up to the 1936 Games, contending with racism in the U.S. and Germany before his eventual triumph. Up-and-coming British thesp John Boyega plays Owens, as previously announced in Variety.

Mister Smith’s David Garrett told buyers gathered at the stadium that they were in advanced negotiations with Carice Van Houten to play Leni Riefenstahl.

He announced that Al Munteanu’s SquareOne Entertainment, the German distributor and an exec producer, and Canadian distrib eOne have boarded the project. Production will start May 24, and with the pic to lense in Berlin and Montreal.

“It will feel like a contemporary story,” Hopkins said. “It is about a kid from the wrong side of the tracks fighting his way to the forefront to represent his country. It should be something where people go, ‘I can’t believe this ever happened.’

“My dream is to present a real hero,” he added. “Someone who does it because of his need to better himself and to be dignified, but not in a stuffy way.”

Garrett said he likes to think of the project as “Chariots of Fire” on acid.

“It is an unbelievable story that if you had written it as fiction people would have gone, ‘Hmm, nah. That’s too amazing to be true,’ ” Garrett said. “It has so many stratas, whether it is the issues of prejudice and segregation, and then the hypocrisy of it all, and how people are prepared to compromise their views. It’s about one man breaking down so many people’s prejudices.”

Munteanu said, “It was supposed to be the Nazi Olympics, and he upstaged it entirely. It is a story about complete and utter dedication at a time when everything was against him.”

Producers include Forecast Pictures’ Jean Charles Levy and ID+’s Luc Dayan.

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