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Running for History: 'Jesse Owens' Gives Us the Inside Track on a Sports Icon

By Taylor Segrest

It seems easily taken for granted now that events are refracted into history through the lenses of surrounding cell phones. Our rabid media culture devours and discards its subjects with the same apparent disregard with which it distracts society from any contemplation of causal relationships or underlying significance. In this hyperactive contemporary media environment, a historical film as fresh, compelling and beautifully crafted as the forthcoming American Experience premiere, Jesse Owens, produced and directed by Laurens Grant and written and produced by Stanley Nelson, can seem like an oasis in a flood of mirages.

The transcendent sports biopic is timely in its anticipation of the forthcoming London Olympiad and the 75th anniversary of the riveting 1936 Berlin Olympics, where Owens made his mark in an epic match-up of nationalist narratives that pitted him against Adolf Hitler, but it is also a story that merges a rich array of seemingly timeless as well as uniquely American themes.

 "I think it's a real cautionary tale about the ephemeral nature of sports celebrity in America," says Mark Samels, executive producer of American Experience. "I don't think that's changed a great deal. We worship athletes, but our attention is distracted by the next coming thing. It's a very short lifespan for a sports celebrity in our gaze."

Jesse Owens emerged out of the recent success of Freedom Riders, another American Experience film created by the team of Grant, Nelson (who directed) and Samels. Both films represent what Samels describes as "the excavation work we do to find these stories of remarkable individuals. One of the things our series strives to show is that so often it's not our leaders that change history. It's so-called 'ordinary people.' Jesse Owens was extraordinary in many ways, in his talents, but he was a runner, a member of a team, the son of a sharecropper and had a very modest upbringing."


Courtesy of Ohio State University Archive


In her first effort as director, Grant heavily considered how to represent the greatness of Owens and his heroic endeavors while also striving for a level of intimacy that could make his internal thoughts and struggles more accessible to an audience likely to know little, if anything, about him. 

 "I did think a lot about how to get close to him," she states. "In terms of the public versus private and finding those elements--that was really tough and something I thought about and worked on a lot in terms of reading [all the available materials] get at 'who is he?' and 'what is it he could be going through?' and on top of that the difficulties of a runner. Track and field is very introspective, so it was in some ways a very inner film that I tried to make outer... [as] contrasted with Hitler who was everywhere and there was no question what his beliefs were. With Jesse Owens that was what I wanted to be special. Can I find something that's revealing and introspective about him as a man so he does become much more of a complete person instead of just a cookie-cutter hero?"

This directorial challenge to externalize Owens' introspection was further highlighted by the fact that archival audio of Jesse Owens was scarce. As with Freedom Riders, the vivid, poetically incorporated treasures seamlessly carry the story at surprisingly private--or, at least, seemingly private--moments. Grant's efforts to humanize Owens with the limited availability of footage is so successful that when the first sound of his soft and ebullient voice arrives at the end of the Berlin games, it comes as a revelation.

 "The archival was a challenge," Grant continues. "Also, it's 75 years old, so we're really trying to find things that not only exist, but are preserved so that we can use them. The newsreels were always centered around something in particular--a competition or an event, so they're going to be a bit more event-driven, not so much something like 'Oh, let's just go drive up to Jesse Owens' house in Cleveland and do a newsreel.' So it was about hopefully finding ways to use the archival in a way that made the film exciting."

The excitement of Jesse Owens is further amplified by its "excavation" of a tragically and shamefully disposable legacy from historical oblivion. Apart from the sheer exhilaration of watching Owens' astounding and graceful athleticism, the film renders nuanced scenes of triumph as if it had the wealth of footage that was at the disposal of Senna. Such as when his German rival in the long jump, Lex Long, takes Owens' arm after Owens has defeated him for the gold medal and the two walk a victory lap around the stadium to the roar of the German crowd shouting: "O-vens! O-vens!" Hitler was not pleased, and infamously refused to shake Owens' hand. The film inspiringly captures these intersections of national and personal narratives, and also shows how sometimes never the two shall meet.

As sports writer William Rhoden comments in the film, "It was extraordinary when you think about it. There are these moments in history when the actors understand that moment in history and they just do the right thing."

Rhoden's sentiment indirectly captures the ethos of not just Jesse Owens, but also the American Experience series at its finest. For Samels, this awareness is strong. "Each one of us has the potential for having the reigns of history in our hands at some point," he notes.  "Some people seize it and really affect great change and make this country a much better place."

Yet even within his lifetime--in fact for much of his life--Owens experienced first-hand the racist forces that he had tried so hard to escape. After winning four gold medals in Berlin in defiance of Hitler's agenda, the American hero Owens returned to his home country to find himself paraded and then swiftly pushed back to the margins he had fought so hard to escape. He and his wife were unable to get a hotel room in New York City until one allowed them on the condition that they use the service entrance. The creative team behind Jesse Owens fully explores the tragic and shocking post-Olympics denouement that ensues as Owens struggles gracefully to provide for his family--racing against a horse, running a dry-cleaning business. Here, and at other surprising junctures, the film poignantly demonstrates the elusive nature of social progress in America through Owens's very personal plight.


Jesse Owens (left), with his wife, Ruth Owens, and the president of Ohio State University, 1936. Courtesy of Ohio State University Archive


 "I think it shows the limitations that were given to him, but also his forthrightness," Grant says. "He was just going to do whatever it took: What's going to be the next path? I think in a way he broke ground in terms of how to be a living legend. Now it's just normal. People are legends and icons and they've only done one thing. They get endorsement deals... But that world was unheard of at that time."

 "I think there is a self-awareness of Owens," Samels observes. "I think he realized that he was making history moment by moment in Berlin. I don't think he knew where it would lead. We know he had hopes and dreams."

Eventually, after struggling for decades to get by, Owens began to get his due, becoming a US Goodwill Ambassador and getting endorsement deals. Heartbroken as he may have been, he seemed to take it all in the same proud, determined stride, a hero for all times. The grace of Jesse Owens seems stylistically reflected in the exemplary craft and storytelling of the film Grant, Nelson and Samels have made.

 "I think there's plenty of space in our noisy media landscape for this kind of storytelling," Grants maintains. "I'm not a historian. I make films. But I love to try to make history come alive."

 Jesse Owens airs May 1 on PBS' American Experience.

Taylor Segrest is writer and co-producer of Darwin (2011). He is currently at work on his next film, a narrative feature about the most tragically forgotten rebellion in American history. He is also a contributing editor for Documentary.