Armstrong: Race to see the new Jesse Owens movie

3 x 2 jenice group shot jesse owen
People Paper's Jenice Armstrong outside the Roxy Theater with a group of students to preview "Race."

Parents, do your kids a favor and take them to see Race, the film about the Olympic runner that opens Feb. 19.

No, scratch that.

Take everybody. Take your nieces and nephews, your neighbors' kids, and all the children on your block.

Why?

A lot of kids don't know who the heck Jesse Owens even was. On Thursday, I asked a couple of students, including a junior at Carver High School of Engineering and Science in North Philadelphia: Do you know anything about Jesse Owens? The junior hesitated and then admitted, "Uh, no, not really. But I'm trying to get a little read on it."

In all fairness, that was the reason behind his visit to Center City on Wednesday afternoon. He was one of about 65 local students from three schools I'd invited to attend a screening at the PFS Roxy Theater in Center City.

The students were packed in, but seemed to enjoy it. As soon as the film ended, I made a point of making my way through the crowd of chattering classmates back to the student I'd interviewed earlier. So, what did you think?

"I think it was a good movie and very inspirational," he said before turning to leave.

Maniah Silver, 15, a freshman at Carver, was chattier.

"My favorite part was when he persevered through the discrimination. He didn't give up. Because people, they tried to doubt him," she told me. "Me, I would have been like, 'You know what? It's too much, I can't do it.' But he motivated me to keep going."

Owens was the son of a sharecropper (and the grandson of slaves) whose incredible medal-grabbing feats at the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany debunked Adolf Hitler's bogus theory of Aryan superiority.

The movie, made with the cooperation of Owens' daughters, gives insight into Owens the man (did you know he was married and already a father when he competed at the Berlin Olympics?) as well as Owens the athlete. (In 1935 at the Big Ten Championships in Michigan, he set three world records and tied for a fourth - even though he was injured.)

Owens went on to become a world superstar after snagging four Olympic gold medals - not that it protected him from the bigotry and discrimination he again faced back home. In one poignant scene, Owens, portrayed by Stephan James, shows up at a fancy hotel where a dinner is held in his honor. Because of his skin color, Owens is forced to use a service entrance.

"For me, there was very little I knew about Jesse, much like these kids," James told me by phone Wednesday.

But after getting tapped for the role, James learned, "This is a hero, a black hero. An American hero. ... This film speaks to not only young people but older folks as well. It's not just a big history lesson either."

He's right about that. After previewing Race last week, I walked out of the theater profoundly moved, and wishing I could have rounded up a theater full of young people to see it with me. People need to learn and be inspired by lessons of the past.

Last month, there was a big brouhaha over comments by Stacey Dash, the Clueless actress turned Fox News contributor who wrongly claimed on national TV that we don't need Black History Month.

Note to Dash: Black history is American history and should be treated as such. Black History Month is an attempt to address that. Even so, schools can only do so much.

That's why we have to support this movie. It's entertaining. It's educational. It's a win-win.

Besides, when kids are at the movies, history is like butter on popcorn. It soaks in without their even realizing it.

armstrj@phillynews.com
215-854-2223