Know Your Dueling Jesse Owens Biopics: A Guide

By  · Published on May 29th, 2014


Plenty of American heroes never quite get their due, especially cinematically, but it seems as if Olympic champion and beloved national superstar Jesse Owens is about to get an embarrassment of riches when it comes to big screen portrayals. The track and field star and four-time Olympic gold medalist rose to prominence during the 1936 games – held in Berlin, Germany – when Adolf Hitler reportedly “snubbed” Owens by refusing to shake his hand alongside other (German) winners. Although the exact nature of the snub has been debated, it is clear that Hitler meant to use the Olympics to show off his Nazi Germany and prove the superiority of German athletes, which Owens’ winning streak pretty handily derailed. However, what is clear is that our own president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, did snub Owens, who later commented: “Hitler didn’t snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” FDR also didn’t invite him to the White House, as was commonplace at the time.

Owens, who was previously the subject of a 1984 television movie (an Emmy winner, no less), may now be the subject of no less than three brand new feature films. Although it remains to be seen if all of these projects will make it to the big screen – and it seems safe to assume that not all of them will – it’s unclear who will emerge the victor of this cinematic race to the finish, so let’s get to know each and every one of them. Ready, set, go!

Untitled Anthony Mackie Project

Plot: According to Deadline, the film will “focus on the run-up to the 1936 games, and the profound impact that the performance by Owens had on the world. Hitler refused to shake his hand, and the racism evident in the U.S. meant that FDR wouldn’t do it in public, either.”

Starring: The film has been a long-time passion project for star and producer Anthony Mackie (back in 2009, he chatted with our own Scott Beggs about the project, which seemed imminent at the time), who is now reportedly focusing on the project as his next big outing.

Director: Unknown as of this time, and it’s assumed that Mackie has not yet reached that stage in development.

Screenwriter: Jamie Linden, who previously wrote We Are Marshall, which Mackie starred in, is producing the alongside Mackie, and the duo oversaw George Olson’s screenplay for the feature.

Source material: There have been no reports that the film will pull from previous material – this is from life, you guys!

Timeline: Mackie is reportedly currently looking for a distributor for the film and is shopping out to prospective buyers. Mackie and Linden want to fast-track the project, and hopefully Mackie’s rising star will help make that happen quite quickly.


Plot: Variety reported last year that the film will be “set against the backdrop of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin” and will tell “the story of how the son of an Alabama sharecropper shattered Adolf Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy by winning a record four gold medals in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, the long jump and the 400-meter relay.” So, you know, kind of the same thing as Mackie’s project.

Starring: There is no cast currently attached.

Director: Antoine Fuqua has been attached to direct the film since last year.

Screenwriter: The King’s Speech screenwriter David Seidler has been set to pen the script since Disney grabbed the rights in 2013. Hey, he knows adversity!

Source material: Author Jeremy Schaap’s 2007 book, “Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics” (Schaap previously wrote the book that inspired Cinderella Man). Schaap will consult on the film.

Timeline: Disney does own the rights to the film (powerhouse!), and despite not having a cast in place, the apparent attachment of Fuqua appears to be driving it along.


Plot: Again, the same general story (it’s a good one), as the film “will follow Owens along his journey from Alabama to Germany as he overcame prejudice and inspired millions around the world.”

Starring: When it comes to bad timing, the news that Mackie is set to go ahead with his passion project could not have arrived at a worse time, as yesterday also brought us the news that another Owens project is moving right along, with The Wrap’s reveal that Race will now star Stephan James, currently shooting Selma, as original star John Boyega is currently committed to Star Wars.

Director: Stephen Hopkins, best known for films like Predator 2 and Lost in Space, will direct the film.

Screenwriter: The script comes from Joe Shrapnel (Frankie & Alice) and Anna Waterhouse (also Frankie & Alice, they’re a duo).

Source material: Again, life.

Timeline: The project is currently in pre-production and Focus Features is expected to release the film, so it seems as if Race might cross the finish line first.