Comcast NBCUniversal (No. 30 on DiversityInc’s 2015 Top 50 Companies for Diversity) hosted an advance screening of the Focus Features film “Race” Thursday night at the Prince Theater in Philadelphia.
The biopic stars Stephan James as U.S. Olympian great Jesse Owens, who won a record-breaking four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. In the film, Owens’ quest to become the greatest track and field athlete in history places him on the world stage at the Olympics,where he must face Adolf Hitler’s concept of Aryan supremacy.
“Race” also highlights racism Owens experienced abroad and in the U.S. For example, Hitler didn’t shake the Olympic champion’s hand to congratulate him, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt never invited Owens to the White House or acknowledged his triumphs.
David L. Cohen, senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer of Comcast Corporation, facilitated the evening’s program, including a conversation with James via Skype.
“My whole journey in playing Jesse and being able to bring his story back to life almost 80 years later has been incredible and very, very rewarding for me,” James said to the audience. “I’m so excited to be able to teach people about what he had done because I’m very aware that some of you may not know the full story. So hopefully you learn something here tonight.”
James also played civil rights champion and Congressman John Lewis in the 2014 film “Selma.”
“Imagine his first two major roles, playing John Lewis and Jesse Owens,” Cohen said to the audience after James’ call. “So, I asked him privately, ‘Where do you go from here’ I won’t tell you what he said,” he joked.
Cohen then explained to the audience how Comcast NBCUniversal is addressing the current scrutiny of Hollywood for its lack of diversity.
“There’s been a lot of discussion recently about diversity and inclusion, particularly in film,” said Cohen. “And to be candid, much of that discussion has not been flattering to the industry.”
The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag from 2015 resurfaced on Twitter on Jan. 14 following the announcement of the 2016 Academy Awards nominations. For the second year in a row, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Academy Award voters nominated only white actors and actresses in the four acting award categories.
As a result of backlash and boycotts, the Academy announced a vague plan stating it would “double” its “diversity,” without releasing thedemographics of the people who vote for the Oscars.
“While we are not perfect,” Cohen explained,”at Comcast NBCUniversal we’re making a concerted effort to put forth truly diverse films and television programming and to provide opportunities for diverse producers, directors and talent. Programming is a significant part of our diversity strategy.”
He said the company recently supported the launch of several new minority-owned networks, including Sean “Diddy” Combs’ Revolt TV music channel and Aspire, a cable TV network targeting African American audiences launched by Magic Johnson.
In regards to diverse films, Cohen named “Ride Along” and “Ride Along 2,” both of which star Ice Cube and Kevin Hart, as popular releases in 2014 and 2015.Cohen also mentioned “Get On Up,” the critically acclaimed James Brown biopic, and “Straight Outta Compton,” which he said became “the highest grossing film from an African American director in American film history.”
Comcast NBCUniversal is expanding Black History Month beyond February with its award-winning multimedia project “Voices of the Civil Rights Movement.” The project brings together more than 200 interviews, personal stories and commemorative segments from civil rights leaders and participants.
“Working with the Equal Justice Initiative, the late Judge D’Army Bailey, as well as others, Comcast produced these personal stories and segment[s] to live online in a free e-book available on site and its interactive exhibits at both the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and most recently the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee,” Cohen said.
In addition, Cohen noted that Comcast NBCUniversal is “home of the most successful, diverse franchise in film history”: “The Fast and the Furious.” Stars of the film franchise include the late Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez and Tyrese Gibson.
From left to right: Moderator Vi Sikahema of NBC 10; Olympic Medalists Herb Douglas and Anthuan Maybank; Jesse Owens’ granddaughter, Gina Strachan; and CEO of Urban Affairs Coalition Sharmain Matlock-Turner prior to an advance screening “Race” on Feb. 18. (Comcast Photo/ Joseph Kaczmarek)
Cohen also said the company is committed to promoting women in film:
“In 2014 and in 2015, we released ‘Unbroken,’ directed by Angelina Jolie; ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson; ‘Pitch Perfect 2,’ directed by Elizabeth Banks; and ‘Suffragette,’ directed by Sarah Gavron.”
A panel discussion preceding the screening of “Race” was moderated by Vi Sikahema of NBC 10. The panel featured Gina Strachan, Owens’ granddaughter; Olympic medalists Herb Douglas and Anthuan Maybank; and Sharmain Matlock-Turner, CEO of the Urban Affairs Coalition.
“This film is very true and authentic to my grandfather and his experience in the 1936 games and leading up to the games,” said Strachan, who is a 12-time Emmy-winning producer.
“These kinds of stories only get told if people go and buy tickets,” said Matlock-Turner. “As David said earlier, one of our highest grossing films in the Black community was a particular film. I would love for ‘Race’ to be the highest grossing film in our community.”
“Race” was released in theaters nationwide on Friday. Comcast NBCUniversal is the home of the 2016 Rio Olympics this summer and all Olympic Games through 2032.