'American Experience: Jesse Owens:' Laurens Grant Revisits the 1936 Olympics for Her PBS Documentary
Jesse Owens was the most famous athlete of his time. The stunning triumph of this 22-year-old son of a sharecropper at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin captivated the world, while it infuriated the Nazis. To relate the magnitude of Owens’ remarkable victory amidst the rise of Nazi propaganda, producer and director Laurens Grant took the 360-degree approach in making the story come to life. The resulting feature-length documentary, Jesse Owens, aired in May on the PBS series American Experience.
Grant found the biggest challenge was getting access to Owens’ childhood, which took place in the 1920s and ’30s in a poor Cleveland neighborhood. While there was not a lot of material on Owens himself, Grant was able to get a sense of him from the time period. “It was exciting to delve into that early experience. Since Jesse was attracted to track as a youngster, it allowed us to open the discussion up to early track and field in the U.S.”
In her exploration, Grant discovered footage of early organized races at county fairs and local community activities. “Footraces were part of the experience,” she says. “It was terrific to find these home movies and early footage of people running footraces as part of a community get-together.”
Early newsreels were a great source for Grant and her team. “The Olympics and the Olympic trials were covered back then,” she says. “The title of World’s Fastest Man was held in awe. These athletes were heroes.”
Associate producer Stacey Holman turned to prominent stock houses including Corbis and Getty for still photos. The team also approached former Olympians and asked to go through their archives. “Many of these Olympians are well up in their 90s and they got their personal pictures for us,” says Holman. “It was great. One Olympian brought us his gold medal, which was absolutely wonderful.”
Holman contacted newspapers and consulted the historical societies of Owens’ hometown of Cleveland, though she realized the era of her subject would complicate matters. “We’re talking about the 1920s and ’30s and African American males,” she says. “[Media] were not documenting their stories. We created a historical doc with resources that were limited in certain ways.”
The challenge forced them to be creative in how they told the story, using graphic movements to convey tone of certain events, for example.
A huge find was an interview Jesse Owens and his wife had done for an oral history project later in his life. “When he was on camera, he was usually on script, saying, ‘Oh, this is a great race. People were generous,’” says Holman. With the oral history interview, however, “We finally got a candid view of him and what he went through. We used it as a voiceover, to hear his voice and feel his presence. It was one of the rare moments to hear Jesse Owens talk about Jesse Owens.”