NBC Pays Tribute to African American History Tonight With New Jesse Owens Documentary

The U.S. athlete Jesse Owens, who flourished at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
The U.S. athlete Jesse Owens, who flourished at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

The intersection of race and athletics has become an increasingly popular documentary subject, embodied most recently by ESPN’s epic O.J. Simpson series.

Now NBC is offering a new entry to the canon: “More Than Gold,” a story of Jesse Owens’ historic performance at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, narrated by Morgan Freeman. The network will debut the film this Sunday; it is being timed to the theatrical opening later this month, by NBC sister company Focus Features, of “Race,” the fact-based biopic that has Stephan James starring as Owens.

An uplifting jangle of a film, filled with colorful details and athlete testimonials, the one-hour “Gold” seeks to examine the legacy of Owens.

A college star carrying a mountain of expectation, Owens wasn’t specifically seeking social change when he arrived at the Games in 1936. But with his four gold medals — in two individual sprints, a sprint relay and the long jump — he won over the masses at the Olympiastadion, offered a retort to a displeased Adolf Hitler and forever altered the fate of black athletes.

“I think the lesson of Jesse Owens is that you can shape history by doing what you love the most,” said Matt Allen, a senior feature producer at NBC Sports Group who produced the film.

Allen and his NBC Sports colleagues, including the producer and longtime Olympics chronicler Phil Parrish, went deep to find those who could tell Owens’ story.

In addition to experts like Pellom McDaniells III, producers also interviewed a trio of athletes who were on the U.S. Olympic team with Owens, including gold medal swimmer Adolph Kiefer and canoe athlete John Lysak.

Of particular note is the third competitor, American swimmer Iris Cummings Critchell. A Southern California native who would go on to become a well-known aviator, Critchell offers sharp pieces of color, such as the scene aboard the ship Manhattan that transported hundreds of athletes to the game. (Different sports were given different time slots above deck; pole-vaulting, nonetheless, was difficult.)

Owens’ three daughters — Beverly Owens Prather, Marlene Owens Rankin and Gloria Owens Hemphill — are also featured, describing poignantly such things as their father’s relationship with the German jumper Lutz Long, with whom Owens forged an unlikely relationship. Footage of the Games themselves, particularly the scene inside the stadium for Owens’ victories, also offer a vivid portrait of life at the 1936 Olympics. (You can watch an exclusive clip here.)

The film, coming on the 80th anniversary of Owens’ achievement, also arrives at a time of questions over justice for African Americans in a wider range of public life. If the movie underlines Owens’ historic achievements, it also points to a more complicated modern world.

“There’s no bad time to do a Jesse Owens documentary,” Allen said. “But this is a moment to remember both the progress he made and how far there still is to go.”

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SOURCE: L.A. Times – Steven Zeitchik