New PBS documentary chronicles Jesse Owens, the remarkable Olympian

Courtesy of PBS

Jesse Owens lived and breathed history. Arguably the most famous American runner, Owens broke multiple world records during an era of harsh racism and global divides. His greatest accomplishments took place at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany — a global contest overseen by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Owens, trying to promote peace and unity, held his head high and ran his heart out (despite calls by many people to boycott the Olympics that year). The results prove to be one of the most invigorating American sports stories of all time.

American Experience on PBS recaptures that Olympic glory in its new 60-minute look at Owens and the unusual life he led. From a difficult upbringing to the college track to the headlines of national newspapers, this man was known to the public far and wide. But despite his celebrity status, Owens never stopped being a victim of discrimination. He encountered obstacles at every stage of his life, even after he won the Olympic gold. He represented a country that didn’t fully protect his rights because of the color of his skin; that may be the definition of courage.

In later years, after the Olympic gold medals were a distant memory, Owens was reduced to the most patronizing contests of all: He raced horses in front of spectators for money. It wasn’t until much later in life that the country rediscovered this American trailblazer and recaptured his story for the masses.

American Experience’s TV special feels especially pertinent with the 2012 London Olympics right around the corner. The competitors in the games, whether American or not, could learn a great deal from this man and his accomplishments in 1936. In the face of tyranny, he somehow mustered the bravery to race like no other man had ever raced before. He embarrassed Hitler without firing one shot.

Produced and directed by Laurens Grant, the special is now available on DVD. It brings together archival footage and current-day interviews from analysts and Owens’ own family members. It’s a slick, inspiring documentary that never gets in the way of its unbelievable subject. Owens is too magnetic a force to interrupt. He deserves our attention.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Jesse Owens

  • Originally aired on American Experience on PBS

  • Now available on DVD

  • Produced and directed by Laurens Grants

  • Written and produced by Stanley Nelson

  • Running time: 60 minutes

  • Rating: ★★★★

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications.

E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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