THE SHOW "Jesse Owens: American Experience"
WHEN | WHERE Tuesday at 8 on WNET/13
REASON TO WATCH Finally, a documentary on Jesse Owens.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Owens became for a time the most famous athlete in the world in the 1930s -- and a dramatic repudiation of Hitler's master race agitprop after winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics Games in Berlin.
He was a world-class athlete (golds for the 100- and 200-meter dash, long jump and relay) and a world-class symbol. The barest of outlines of this remarkable life story: An Ohio State champ, he had spectacular success at a Big Ten Conference championship meet in Michigan, which set the stage for the 1936 Olympics. There had been some American opposition to the games -- which Owens initially supported -- because of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws of 1935, as well as widespread persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany.
But Avery Brundage, head of the U.S. Olympic Committee and a Nazi sympathizer, bulldozed past those, and Owens' historic moment was secured. He won his medals, infuriated Hitler but -- remarkably -- became a favorite of the Germans. As this program also notes, Owens also became a friend of Luz Long, the German long-jumper.
MY SAY What a story. Really. What an amazing story. A rub-your-eyes, did-this-really-happen kind of story, of race, racism, Hitler, America and human perseverance. But try as "American Experience" might, it can't quite begin to convey the whole story of Owens.
Watching this, you'll be left with the nagging sense that something's missing, or at least something's not fully explored. Owens' Olympics feats are well-told here, but his post-games life not so much. Much is partially or inadequately told. Why -- for example -- did Owens not have much of a role with the Civil Rights movement? Did he even know the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.? Why did he have such sour relations with President Franklin D. Roosevelt (but apparently good ones with President Dwight D. Eisenhower)? Good questions, but not asked. "American Experience" needed another hour here because the man and his life are simply too complex. But let's just be grateful we've got this much.
BOTTOM LINE Fascinating but incomplete.