Friday, April 27, 2012

American Experience: Jesse Owens



A few weeks back a couple of friendly publicists for the popular PBS program "American Experience" emailed me to ask if I'd be interested in previewing the new documentary "Jesse Owens" set to premiere nationally on May 1.

Hello! Twist my arm!

"American Experience" is a longtime favorite in the Wolaver home. Outstanding programs. Their series "New York: A Documentary Series by Ric Burns" is an all-time great for Public Broadcasting.

So without hesitation I accepted the opportunity to view "Jesse Owens."

This is not the first film featuring the 1936 Olympic champion. In 1984 there was a made for TV mini-series "The Jesse Owens Story" which was, on the heels of "Chariots of Fire," among the first Olympic films I watched. In the 28 years since, there were other Jesse Owens tributes and specials, and a few years ago I stopped in rural Oakville, Ala., at the Jesse Owens Museum.

And of course, Owens appears in the original Olympic documentary film "Olympia" by Leni Riefenstahl, with several clips from this sports photography masterpiece appearing in the current "American Experience" program.

The new "Jesse Owens" feature comes to us from the team of Laurens Grant and Stanley Nelson, the producers of the Emmy winning documentary "Freedom Riders." They did a nice job with the new documentary, though with a few quirks.

It struck me funny that Owens' first eight years -- among 10 siblings residing in rural Alabama -- received only one mention of the Southern state, with no footage of his hometown museum; the filmmakers instead noted Cleveland as the launching point for the Owens story.

I also had a bone to pick with the film's one odd visual: The opening sequence included some interesting X-ray footage (early black and white X-ray films of bones and joints showcasing movement). "Were these Owens' bones?" I pondered, wondering the source of the skeletal footage (still scratching my head ... why was this inserted?).

With these two initial observations noted, the film quickly got to the Owens tale many already know.

We learn about his early track days, coaches and initial success juxtaposed with racial inequality that was the norm of his time, with Owens denied restaurant service and hotel accommodations -- and even an on-campus dorm room -- due to segregation.

We're also introduced to Owens fans who were his contemporaries, including U.S. Olympic Teammates Iris Cummings Critchell (swimming) and Louis Zamperini (athletics), as well as Berlin Olympiad spectators Theodor Michael and Hilmar Dressler, who read about Owens in German newspapers during the buildup to the Games. There's also the great sportsmanship shared by Owens and German long jump rival Carl "Luz" Long, who famously walked arm in arm after receiving their Olympic medals, an Olympic-sized flipping of the bird to Hitler and all he stood for in front of the world.

One thing I learned in this documentary was how the NAACP encouraged Owens to speak out against Team USA heading to Berlin at all. But after Owens brought up this opposition, many of the key influencers of the time, including his own coach and American Olympic Committee leader Avery Brundage, quickly quashed the track star's anti-Games remarks.

This was not the last time Brundage and others overruled Owens and teammates, as viewers learn of Games-time politics and post-Olympic promotions that Owens endured for several months, ultimately denying him many opportunities to cash in on his success.

Sidebar: Brundage is a controversial figure in Olympic history worthy of his own "American Experience" documentary -- in this "Jesse Owens" film, Brundage is painted in a negative light, cast perhaps unfairly with near-Hitler-level "bad guy" status, without noting enough context about Brundage's multiple hats for the IOC, AOC and AAU while delving into his perspectives on Jewish athletes -- I write this not in defense of Brundage's reprehensible actions; rather, to encourage viewers and readers of this blog to absorb the "Jesse Owens" Brundage footage and voiceovers with a grain of salt, or to learn more about Brundage beyond the film.

Another key learning from "American Experience: Jesse Owens" was Owens' main pre-Games competition, a runner named Eulace Peacock (if NBC was the host broadcaster for the 1936 Olympics, where television debuted, they would have had a field day given their winged logo). Unfortunately, Peacock -- named by the AP as the gold medal favorite for Berlin -- was denied a spot on Team USA due to an injury.

The film also notes Thomas Wolfe's perspectives on the Games as he attended the Opening Ceremony and track competitions as a celebrity guest. Zamperini also tells of the unfortunate aftermath of cannon fire (during the opening ceremony) which startled thousands of peace doves, er, pigeons released above the athletes who marched into the stadium. It was fun to see some of my fellow members of the International Society of Olympic Historians on the small screen.

An interesting visual element during the Berlin sequences: Animation using iconic Olympic posters for the Berlin Games. The producers also converted several still photos into animation, an appealing move that brought to life several of Owens' races.

The film concludes with a brief sequence of Owens' post-Games activities, which saw him fade into obscurity for decades before desegregation and renewed Olympic and U.S. patriotism brought him back into the limelight during the 1960s and 1970s.

I enjoyed the "Jesse Owens" feature for "American Experience" and it is worth one's time to tune in to local PBS stations. One of the best things about "American Experience" is that the series always inspires me to do more of my own research, and that is true of the "Jesse Owens" documentary.

In preparing this Olympic blog post, for instance, I learned more about Wolfe, and that Peacock (also from a rural Alabama town) and  Owens later opened a business together, according to this biography. I also learned that Owens opened his own public relations firm in Chicago, according to this timeline (in step with Dan Edelman, founder of the world's largest independent P.R. firm, my former employer). These fun facts did not make it to the final version of "American Experience: Jesse Owens" but I am thankful the documentary led me to learn these details.

Photos via this link, this link and this link

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