On Tuesday May 1, PBS' American Experience will air its new, one-hour documentary on U.S. sprinter, Jesse Owens. It is a great history lesson.
Visually, the documentary leans on photographs from Owens' youth at Ohio State, his performance at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and what film footage that exist. It is remarkable to watch him blow away his all-white competitors, or lose to Temple runner Eulace Peacock.
Where American Experience usually defeats its competitors are the interviews. The commentary from journalists such as Jeremy Schaap or William C. Rhoden are interesting, but the memories from people who knew, or watched, Owens is amazing.
Any time former U.S. runner, and decorated WWII survivor, Louis Zamperini does an interview it's worth watching.
Owens' story against Hitler and Nazi Germany has been told only about eight million times. This documentary seperates itself with a handful of interviews of aging Germans. The Germans who remember being flooded with the Aryan master race propaganda, German historians, and Germans who witnessed Owens' in Berlin and what he meant to them.
What is often overlooked in Owens' story is that there were a number of other blacks on that U.S. Olympic team. The footage of the U.S. squad traveling via boat across the Atlantic shows a team that was more integrated than the country it represented.
When the respective Olympic teams arrived in Berlin they arrived to a city that was also putting on a show. By 1936, Nazi Germany was oppressed, paranoid, and anti Semitic. Most of those realities were swept under the rug for its visitors.
(BTW - Did you know the Nazis invented the concept of a torch bearer going from ancient Olympia to start the games by lighting a flame in the stadium?)
In front of irritated Nazi leadership, Owens became a star in Berlin to the German people. Hitler refused to shake his hand. Joseph Goebbels said white race should be ashamed of watching a black Owens win three gold medals.
The documentary focuses more on the '36 games than any other time in his life.
The tragic part of this story is that despite his talent, intellect, fame, awareness of his society and responsibilities to his race, he was still a black man living in a country that treated them like garbage.
The 20 years of his life between the '36 games and 1955, which included racing horses, is sad. Only until his latter years was he able to truly cash in and take advantage of what should have been made available to him for decades. He died in 1980 at the age of 66.
In terms of the evolution of race in sports, or in American society in the 1900s, there may not be a greater figure than Jesse Owens.
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