Over one week in August 1936, Jesse Owens made his mark on both Olympic and world history. The son of Alabama sharecroppers and grandson of a slave, Owens won a record four gold medals in track and field at the Olympic Games in Berlin, spoiling Adolf Hitler's conceived showcase of Aryan athletic superiority.
Before the month was out, Owens was barred by his own country from participating in any further amateur sports competition. And by the end of 1936, Owens—who less than five months earlier achieved immortality before 100,000 cheering Germans—was racing a gelding for money on a dirt track in Havana, Cuba, in front of a crowd of 3,000.
"Jesse Owens came home to the parades and pretty much that was it," says filmmaker Stanley Nelson. "He had to fight to earn a living and support his family for years."
The story—both known and largely unknown—of the track and field icon is the subject of Jesse Owens, the latest documentary from Nelson and director Laurens Grant.
Produced for the PBS American Experience series by Nelson's Firelight Films, Jesse Owens frames its subject within the broader African-American experience, a subject at the heart of Nelson and Grant's previous, Emmy Award-winning collaborations for PBS, The Murder of Emmett Till and Freedom Riders.
Jesse Owens is Grant's first strictly biographical film and Nelson's first since his 2000 biopic of Marcus Garvey. Nelson admits his knowledge of Owens' backstory was limited before he embarked on this project.
"I knew of Jesse Owens and him challenging Hitler, but I didn't know things like where he came from, what he endured to get to the Olympics and then what happened after the Olympics," says Nelson.
Grant says the film's genesis began with American Experience, whose producers envisioned the upcoming Summer Olympics in London as a timely backdrop for the 76th anniversary of Owens' success in Berlin.
That left the filmmakers with a relatively compressed schedule to complete the documentary. Grant says the total time for production—which included gathering archival footage and photographs, conducting interviews and editing—was approximately 10 months.
Nelson says the quick turnaround is both deceptive and, in this case, a blessing.
"One of the great things about working with American Experience is that they had raised all the money to make the film," Nelson explains. "So many times when you hear about filmmakers taking two years, five years or eight years [to make a film], part of it is raising money. So if you have the money, you have to get on a schedule that makes sense so you're using your time and spending the money wisely."
Another aspect of working with PBS is tailoring content for a television broadcast. In the case of Jesse Owens, it meant condensing the wealth of historical facts and available material into a 54-minute running time.
Again, Nelson views this as an advantage.
"No matter who you're making a film for, at some point you gotta wrap it up," he says. "So in some ways working with PBS and their [limited airtime] has been a benefit for me because it gives the film time and a structure. I work with a lot of young filmmakers making their first or second films, and they'll bring in a rough cut that's three or four hours long. I say, 'OK, maybe we can make this a miniseries.' I think having a time structure in the beginning [of the production] can be very helpful."
One of the most striking facets of Jesse Owens is its exquisite use of preserved and, in some cases, restored video and photographs, what Grant calls "the never-ending quest, love, desire and angst of archival footage."
"We learned a lot of lessons from doing a number of historical films about getting the best copies we can and how to clean them up," Nelson adds. "I look at the still footage as another character in the film and want it to look great."
Beyond the logistics, however, lay the task of translating the life and legacy of a legend, making him both accessible and poignant. Part of that mission is chronicling Owens' sporting success. While history deservedly extols his Olympic accomplishments, the film also documents May 25, 1935, the day Owens—then a student at Ohio State University competing in a Big Ten college meet—broke three world records and tied a fourth in the span of 45 minutes, a feat many experts rank as one of the greatest athletic achievements of the past 150 years.
Just as significant is the tragic arc of Owens' post-Olympic life. While much has been made of Hitler refusing to congratulate Owens or even shake his hand, it is less known that Owens was not even invited to the White House when he returned to America. In 1966, the U.S. government prosecuted him for tax evasion. Indeed, there are striking parallels between Owens' story and that of Joe Louis, another black athlete who struck a blow against Hitler's folly of Aryan supremacy only to suffer a lifetime of racial prejudice from the nation he once represented.
"There's this subtle similarity between the racism Jesse endured here and what was going on under Nazi Germany," Nelson observes. "I want to be clear that obviously I wouldn't compare what was going on with African-Americans in any way to what happened to Jewish people in Germany—there's no comparison. But there are similarities."
For Grant, all these factors figure into assembling and conveying the complex mosaic of a man who became larger-than-life.
"That is always a struggle, particularly in historical documentaries, where you're often telling the lives of giants," says Grant. "How do you offer insight into their steps along the way and yet make it human and not so simple and pat? This film is the story of one man in a larger context."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Beyond the thrill of victory."