“You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.” Jesse Owens’ description of running is surely poetic. Yet even as he found in running a means to express himself, to assert his independence and brilliance, the world around him remained unjust and odious. Jesse Owens—premiering on PBS’ American Experience on 1 May—recalls that world, as well as the athlete’s singular resistance to such injustice. It’s helpful to recall this dynamic now, at a time when athletes typically don’t take on such responsibility. As Laurens Grant’s elegant documentary points out, the responsibility was tremendous, as he traveled with the US Olympic team to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The bare bones of the outcome are well known now: Owens won four gold medals and Hitler refused to shake his hand. But the backstories to Owens’ triumphs on the track may be less familiar. And these stories, even those noted briefly here, demonstrate the complexity of the situations for Owens, the many “directions” he had to go, and the many winds he had to fight.
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