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American Experience: Jesse Owens (DVD Review)

30 Apr, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Street 5/1/12
$24.99 DVD.

Growing up in 1950s’ Central Ohio, I spent most of third grade reading two kinds of 20th-century bios: those about famous American gangsters (all of them, especially Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and Ma Barker) and legendary jocks. Of the latter chronicles, none was more satisfying than the story of one who, for a while, had been an Ohio State University local: black sprinter/long-jumper Jesse Owens — who, by going to Berlin’s 1936 Olympics and winning four gold medals, pretty well kicked Hitler right … there!

Of course, the histories I read and local lore I heard left out a few things — as when Owens came back from his triumphs and still couldn’t find a New York hotel room to share with his wife until finally a sole establishment relented if the two would agree to use the service elevator. Later, to make ends meet during what turned out to be some very tough times, Owens (with an equalizing head start) would race horses on foot, and this episode did make the official bios. Though it was the kind of contest that sounds cool to a kid, it did come to seem somewhat demeaning with the passage of years into adulthood, at least when involving a figure who had done so much for his country.

Naturally, these Owens down days get covered in this brand new documentary because it is part of PBS’s head-on-straight “American Experience” series. But the bulk, as it should be, deals with a sharecropper’s son who came out of Alabama into Cleveland, where his natural athletic skills were honed by a sympathetic junior high coach. Owens’ continued success at OSU was highlighted by a day in Ann Arbor (May 25, 1935) when he pulled off a feat that might even trump his Olympics success: setting three world records and tying a fourth in about 45 minutes. What makes this even more amazing was the prelude. Owens had taken a fall during some horseplay with his teammates, and many thought he should have been in the hospital, much less even competing.

According to the documentary, Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels had to convince Hitler to sign on to the Olympics, reasoning that it would be a great PR move to brandish the superiority of German athletes to the world (along with this must have emerged Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia as part of the ta-da-da-da package). Owens, however, foiled the plans — as well as Hitler’s plans to shake the hand of the winners when one of them turned out to be black. There’s a remarkable anecdote spun here that I wish someone with the jaundiced sensibility of, say, Robert Altman had lived to film in some context. To launch the proceedings, the Germans released a sky-full of pigeons and then shot off some cannons. Just about the time you’re saying to yourself, “uh oh,” an interviewee confirms that the spectators did indeed get pounded — the men on their hats and the hatless women in their hair. Nice advance work, Joe.

The writer-director here is Stanley Nelson, whose previous terrific work for “American Experience” has included Freedom Riders, the Emmett Till series entry and a chiller on the Jonestown Tragedy. This rendering strongly suggests that Owens was one of those pioneer black celebrities who had to repress a lot … part of him towing the line as the hero the American power structure wanted him to be and another part with the soul of a potential but undeveloped militant. (Though he eventually bit his lip in public, Owens had some run-ins with American Olympics Committee prez Avery Brundage, who was famously no prince and an all-out Neanderthal in terms of women athletes.) Interestingly, it was not progressive Democrats who did well by Owens in the bleak years but good old Republican Ike. Owens was very close to poverty in the 1940s — looking for his niche but not able to begin flourishing professionally until Eisenhower named him an official Goodwill Ambassador. Later, Gerald Ford awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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