Though he hasn’t attended university, Stephan James has a front row seat to the modern history of human rights and has taken to the stage to re-enact that history.
The Pickering resident, who turns 21 next December, plays the role of United States Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia) in the Oprah Winfrey-co-produced movie, Selma.
Distributed by Paramount Films, the movie tells the story of Dr. Martin Luther King’s voting rights activism that was the catalyst for American president Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
At the height of the civil rights movement, activists organized a 54-mile march for voting rights from Selma in Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery. On March 7, 1965, about 600 people met at a downtown church to prepare for the march through the city streets.
Lewis, who was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the rest of the demonstrators were stopped by Alabama state troopers as they were leaving Selma and ordered to disperse.
Just 65 seconds after a two-minute warning was given, the troopers advanced into the crowd with clubs and tear gas. Lewis – who had already been arrested 25 times and was badly beaten during Freedom Rides in Montgomery and South Carolina – suffered a fractured skull on a day that is remembered in history as “Bloody Sunday”.
Eight days later, Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act that was signed on August 6, 1965. It’s one of the most critical pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed by the United States Congress.
James said he’s looking forward to meeting Lewis – who is considered the soul of the voting rights movement and its most articulate advocate – before shooting of the movie ends in Selma at the end of this month.
“It’s so fulfilling to be given the opportunity to play the role of a man who has been a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement of which I am learning so much about now,” James told Share from Atlanta this week. “Learning what he and others like the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went through means so much to me. It’s because of their struggle that African-Americans can now vote. That’s powerful stuff and I am really eager to meet Mr. Lewis in the next few weeks.”
Winfrey was on the movie set late last week for scenes shot in Marietta Square in Metro Atlanta.
“Oprah is such a wonderful and amazing woman,” said James. “She had very kind words for me and was very complimentary of my audition for the role. That was so nice of her.”
Selma is directed by Ava DuVernay, who was the first Black woman to win the Best Director prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her second feature film, Middle of Nowhere.
Prior to joining the cast, James played the role of Cummings Shackspear in the Clement Virgo-directed The Book of Negroes. The miniseries follows the life of Aminatta Diallo when she’s abducted as a child from her West African village to her life as a slave in South Carolina and her subsequent move to freedom, serving the British in the Revolutionary War and registering her name in The Book of Negroes.
The series, which also features Oscar winners Lou Gossett Jr. and Cuba Gooding, is based on the Lawrence Hill award-winning novel which captured the Commonwealth Writers’ and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prizes and the Ontario Library Association Evergreen Award.
This has been an extremely busy year for James, who was nominated for a 2013 Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television Award.
He plays T.K. Kelly in When the Game Stands Tall. Directed by Thomas Carter, the film is based on the true story of legendary high school football coach Bob Ladouceur, who led the De La Salle Spartans of Concord, California from obscurity to a 151-game winning streak over 12 years.
James was also cast as John Douglas in The Gabby Douglas Story that recounts the meteoric rise and incredible exploits of the young gymnast who became the first Black American to win gold medals in the individual all-round and team competitions at the same Olympics – the 2012 London Games.
He also appears in The Dependables that was released last Tuesday, Perfect Sisters that was released in England last April and Lost After Dark and Apple Mortgage Cake that are in post-production.
“It has been hectic, but I am not complaining,” James said. “I have faith and I know that I would not be given more than I can bear. I am blessed and just grateful to be in a position where I am working and enjoying what I am doing.”
Late last week, it was announced that James’ representatives are close to finalizing a deal for the young Canadian to play the role of legendary Olympian Jesse Owens in Race. He could replace John Boyega, who had to drop out due to his Star Wars: Episode VII commitments.
Owens set three world records and tied another in 45 minutes at the 1935 Big Ten track meet and a year later, he clinched four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics.
Race will follow Owens along his journey from Alabama to Germany as he overcame prejudice and inspired millions globally.
Best known for portraying Julian on Degrassi: The Next Generation, James made guest appearances on How to be Indie and My Babysitter’s A Vampire and was in a lead role in 12 Dates of Christmas which premiered in December 2011.
He also played the lead role of Everton – a British teenager deported to Jamaica for possession of a small quantity of drugs – in the dramatic feature film, Home Again, that was screened at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival
A graduate of Jarvis Collegiate Institute, James – who is also a talented hip hop artist – was born and raised in Scarborough. He’s the middle of three boys raised by a single parent.
Older brother Shamier Anderson graduated from Wexford School for the Arts as an Ontario Scholar and made guest appearances in Degrassi, Rookie Blue and Saving Hope while the youngest – teenager Sheldon James – has a pilot’s license and is pursuing aviation science studies at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida.