Editor’s note: ‘Jesse Owens’ screens at Stranger Than Fiction on 17 April, co-presented by the Black Documentary Collective and followed by a Q&A with director Laurens Grant. It premieres on ‘American Experience’ on 1 May.
After I came home from the 1936 Olympics with my four medals, it became increasingly apparent that everyone was going to slap me on the back, want to shake my hand or have me up to their suite. But no one was going to offer me a job.
— Jesse Owens, in Jesse Owens by Tony Gentry (Holloway House Publishing 1990)
“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. The documentary Jesse Owens 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. For Owens, Laurens Grant’s elegant film 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.
Owens was helped in these battles by the fact that, as a runner, he was “a model of technical perfection, the way he ran,” according to New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden, one of the film’s wide-ranging selection of interview subjects. “That was in such opposition,” he continues, “of what African Americans were supposed to be.” The film notes that he worked with supportive and innovative coaches (Ohio State’s Larry Snyder had his runners work out to music on a phonograph, notes Jeremy Schaap, author of Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens And Hitler’s Olympics, to encourage their relaxation and develop rhythm in their strides). The film provides images to suggest this process, not only still photos set into motion (by way of the infamous “Ken Burns effect”), but also by some terrific footage of Owens running and long-jumping at college meets.
At the same time that such visuals suggest the athlete’s technique, others — portraits of black workers and children — indicate his social and political contexts. Born in Alabama, the 10th child of sharecroppers, Owens moved with his family to Cleveland in 1922. During the 1930s, when Owens came to national prominence, first at Cleveland’s East Technical High School and then at Ohio State, he was confronted each day not only by racism but also, as historian William J. Baker puts it, “an accommodationist world,” in which black citizens had to “be obedient, they had to be deferential, and Jesse early on learned he had to smile to get his way.” He put this lesson to work when he entered onto a world stage: following a brief excursion to Hollywood — where he reportedly partied too much and didn’t train hard enough — he returned to Cleveland to prepare for the Olympics (and marry Ruth Solomon, his longtime girlfriend and mother of his child).
Owens was among those athletes and public figures who urged the US to boycott the 1936 Olympics: the film reveals that Hitler initially referred to the Games as a “Jewish-nigger fest,” and had to be convinced it would be an occasion to celebrate Aryan athletes’ superiority.” (Here the film shows footage of these white athletes stretching, in ways that looks ridiculous, especially compared to the precision of Owens’ filmed performances.) Still, the notoriously racist United States Olympic Committee (USOC) president Avery Brundage declared Germany a “fit host” for the Games, and so Owens decided to go. In part, as Schaap points out, this must have been a decision concerning his own career: it was his chance to “become a hero, an enduring hero.” And so, much like black soldiers who imagined fighting for the US in the coming war would improve their post-war situations at home, Owens went to “battle with Hitler.”
As the film points out, Owens’ victories in that battle — gold medals in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump, and the 400 meter relay — were extraordinary. He also made a conspicuous display of solidarity with German long jumper Luz Long (who won the silver medal in the event), as they walked arm in arm around the stadium, and protested his assignment, along with Robert Metcalfe, to replace two Jewish runners, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller in the relay.
If Hitler predictably “snubbed” Owens, refusing to shake his hand after the medal ceremonies, Owens was outspoken — at least in some circles — about his disappointment back in the States. While 1936 US Olympics team member Louis Zamperini here remembers Owens as “really just a graceful piece of a guy,” who didn’t speak out against the many injustices he suffered or the people who inflicted them, Schaap reports in his book that Owens said, “Hitler didn’t snub me — it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”
The film shows how racist abuses persisted in Owens’ life after the Olympics. Though he was the first black athlete ever to have a contract to wear shoes (Adidas founder Adi Dassler asked him to wear the shoes at the Games), in the States he was still unable to stay at segregated hotels or eat at segregated restaurants, and unable to find work. Too often reduced to absurd stunts, like racing with horses, he did what he “had to,” says his daughter Marlene Owens Rankin, “to feed his family.”
As much as Jesse Owens celebrates the man’s considerable achievements, it also honors his dignity in the face of oppression and cruelty. It shows how he fought the wind, with courage and strength.