TV review: The American Experience: Jesse Owens

From the April 26, 2012 edition

First of all, I admit that I may not be the most unbiased person to review the PBS documentary about famed track star Jesse Owens. I’m named after him, and we share the same birthday. I’ve always had the utmost respect for him as both an athlete and historical figure.

A large portion of the hour-long “American Experience” documentary focuses on the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where Owens won four gold medals in front of — and surely much to the chagrin of — Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. While the story isn’t exactly new, the most significant moment in Owens’ life is skillfully retold, offering some interesting minutiae.

Before diving into the Olympics, the narrative tells of Owens’ early life and college career. Born in Cleveland to a sharecropper — and the youngest of 10 children — Owens was a highly sought-after high school track star who chose to stay home, attending Ohio State University. He became a celebrity as a college athlete and suffered some setbacks because of it before heading to Berlin.

Archival footage from Owens’ college races and the Olympics is stunning and powerful. Watching him trounce the athletic symbol of Nazi evil, cut with images of Hitler at the Olympics, is especially effective.

The documentary also touches on what happened when Owens returned a national hero who still had to endure being black in America before the civil rights movement. Owens was a beacon of American patriotism after his victories, but he was still treated as a second-class citizen. He could hardly get a hotel room in New York City and was offered shockingly few endorsement deals.

Unfortunately, in its short running time, the documentary doesn’t fully examine this incredibly interesting aspect of Owens’ story and how it tied into our national history. I appreciate the quick, watchable pace of the documentary. But it left me wanting more, especially regarding American racial dynamics during Owens’ fame.