Carrying a Torch for PBS’ Golden ‘Jesse Owens’

“Jackie Robinson stood on the shoulders of Jesse Owens,” sociologist Harry Edwards suggests in “Jesse Owens,” a terrific “American Experience” documentary devoted to the Olympic star, premiering on May 1.

JesseowensOf course, most people are (hopefully) familiar with Owens’ four-Gold-medal performance at the 1936 Olympics – all the more dramatic since it happened in Nazi Germany, with Hitler unwilling to be seen photographed shaking Owens’ hand.

Still, this one-hour film by producers Laurens Grant and Stanley Nelson — who also directed and wrote, respectively — goes well beyond that, providing an interesting run-up to the Games, including Owens’ competition with another African-American athlete who threatened his supremacy, only to be injured before Berlin. The story also explores the Games’ aftermath, and how Owens was forced to engage in humiliating stunts, like racing against horses, to earn money and pay back taxes, before his eventual rediscovery and rehabilitation, becoming a U.S. Goodwill Ambassador during the Cold War.

As for the coverage of the Olympics, the filmmakers weave in illuminating interviews with German witnesses to Owens’ feats as well as historians, providing a fuller context of the response at home and in Europe. In addition, Owens’ fourth medal –- for the 400-meter relay -– came because the Nazis objected to two Jewish Americans running in the race, loathing the prospect of losing to them even more than they did blacks.

Narrated by Andre Braugher, “Jesse Owens” captures the tremendous irony in Owens’ story –- an American hero by virtue of his athletic exploits who dealt a powerful blow to Hitler’s dream of turning the Olympics into one big commercial for Aryan superiority, yet still treated like a second-class citizen when he returned home. One can only imagine, by contrast, how spectacularly Owens would have cashed in on his Olympic performance in the current day and age.

Airing during an Olympic year, this “American Experience” captures not only Owens’ brilliance as an athlete but does so in a very economical and expeditious way. Then again, perhaps that’s its own kind of subtle and appropriate tribute to someone who once bore the title “The fastest man alive.”

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