Seventy-six years after making history, Jesse Owens remains synonymous with grace.
But it was not just his amazing speed and agility on the track that imbued him with uncommon grace, as PBS’ “American Experience: Jesse Owens” proves Tuesday, May 1 (check local listings).
Owens contended with disgusting examples of racism. The son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves, he shattered records at the 1936 Olympics. Yet both in Germany and the United States, including New York, he was treated shabbily.
“It was his dignity, grace and poise in the face of 1930s America and Hitler’s Aryan nation,” that struck her, filmmaker Laurens Grant tells Zap2it.
“He was a pioneer of what it means to be a living sports figure and sports icon and role model,” she says.
The one-hour film smoothly weaves interviews with former teammates, spectators at the 1936 Olympics and people who knew Owens, who died in 1980 at age 66.
When Owens was in junior high school, a teacher realized how gifted he was. He became a star athlete at Ohio State, and by 1936, he was shattering records. Despite protests over the United States going to Nazi Germany, the U.S. sent over an integrated roster of 383 athletes.
Owens had noted how, 100 years earlier, his ancestors came across the Atlantic on a slave boat, and how he was crossing the same ocean to represent the United States.
Owens broke records by winning four gold medals. Though Hitler refused to shake his hand, Owens kept his dignity and cool. When he returned home, there were no celebrity endorsements. Rather, he and his wife could not even find a hotel room in New York.
In the ensuing years, he found himself having to take odd jobs and even racing against a horse to support his family. In the 1950s Owens emerged from obscurity when President Dwight Eisenhower named him a goodwill ambassador.
“Jesse Owens had to work through goals and dreams and never gave up,” Grant says.