Interview with Director Laurens Grant on New Film "Jesse Owens"JESSE OWENS is a Firelight Films production for the PBS series American Experience. It centers on the African American track and field star, Jesse Owens, who triumphed at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin amidst the rise of Nazi propaganda. This is the first feature-length documentary directed by Laurens Grant for PBS. The film is also produced and written by veteran filmmaker Stanley Nelson with whom Laurens has worked with on a number of projects, including Freedom Riders, which garnered three Emmy Awards. JESSE OWENS aired on PBS on May 1, 2012.
Laurens is also a participant in the Firelight Media Producers' Lab where she is working on another film Rokia: Voice of a New Generation. Check out our exciting interview with Laurens below.
Firelight Media: How would you sum up what you'd like viewers to take away from watching the film?
Laurens Grant: I hope viewers appreciate not only Owens' athletic achievements in an era before technological advancements in equipment, tracks and training regimens, but also his ability to remain focused through adversity. He was able to shine and become a modern marvel in a nation where Hitler was in power and projected an Aryan ideal. And in the United States, Owens was able to carve out his own path and sustain himself, his family and his legacy during very troubling and limited times for black men—racism, the Depression, and the Cold War. There was no such thing as endorsement deals for black athletes. It's incredible he was able to achieve, survive and remain positive through it all.
FM: What did you discover about him that you didn't know before?
LG: I didn't realize how much he had achieved before the Olympic Games. And at the Olympics, I didn't know he was a last minute substitute in the relays. I didn't know that after all of his achievements, his life after the Olympics would be challenging. I never knew he raced a horse for money. It took him a while after the games to find his stride again financially and when he did, he managed to do it all with professional grace and not bitterness or despair.
FM: How do you think politics plays out today in sports?
LG:I think the Olympic Games will always have some political component to it, even as athletes focus on their skills, nations will add some sort of focus on image and politics.
FM: What quality did Jesse have that inspired that kind of spontaneous warmth and enthusiasm from those who saw him compete?
LG: In 1936, when Jesse Owens was competing in the Olympics, even the Germans in the Berlin stadium were chanting his name. Even fellow competitor Luz Long hugged Owens after losing to him. Watching the footage of Jesse Owens and Luz Long is incredible. Long embraced Owens knowing the world would be watching with a regime that would be displeased. But he was caught up with Owens ability and Long wanted to celebrate a true champion. I think the world's best athletes often do that.
Owens really was the best at his craft and he was a tough yet gracious competitor. And he appreciated meeting his competitors regardless of where they were from. And he was just that good. Watching Owens, the spectators knew they were witnessing something marvelous and earth shattering. They understood that it was the chance of a lifetime. They couldn't help but celebrate.
FM: What challenges did you face during production? What kept you up at night?
LG: Archive! It was a challenge finding material from Owens' career before the Games. But what we did find, I think is pretty magical. Watching him perform is breath taking.
Knowing that I am directing the story of a legend kept me up at night! The responsibility of telling this man's story kept me up. But it also motivated me in such an exciting and powerful way. It was a thrilling challenge as a filmmaker and it was exciting being able to bring the rich archival gems of that era to the screen.
FM: Why should young people be interested in Jesse Owens?
LG: I think young people should be interested in Owens because they can see what it really means to overcome adversity. Owens came from very meager means yet he trained and worked at his craft. And by doing so, he became the best in the world.
FM: What is Jesse Owens’ legacy?
LG: I think Jesse Owens' impact on the world of sport and his ability to overcome adversity after the Olympics and find a livelihood is very inspiring. He's a man who never gave up—no matter what. And he used his knowledge to give back. He helped mentor those younger than he and set up a program that lives on today. His name and his legend live on. That's a great legacy.
FM: You have had great success in the film industry, most recently as a producer for the Emmy-award winning film Freedom Riders. Did this success raise the stakes for you with this film?
LG: Yes! Directing a film right after Freedom Riders was awesome and awe inspiring. What I tried to do was use elements of the film that worked in Freedom Riders and apply it to the film Jesse Owens. For example, what unique interviews, archival gems and insight into Jesse Owens' life story can I uncover in hopes of making a better and more engrossing film?
FM: Can you tell us about your experience as a woman of color working as a director for the film industry?
LG: It's tough for anyone to break into the business and I do think it's particularly challenging for women of color. We often don't get the opportunities and with the economy and budgets for films shrinking, it's going to be even harder to be able to direct films. But we can't give up! We have a voice. I think because we're women we don't make "women's films" but I think because we are women, and women of color, I hope it leads to a deeper, richer and better film. I am more curious about the world, and I try to get at a deeper understanding of my subject and characters, to try and understand how they tick and how they impacted the world around them. To me that's exciting and key elements for great films!
FM: What's one thing that most folks don't know about you?
LG: I'm a published poet! It was years ago and in just a few small literary journals. I also love developing black and white photos. My dad gave me his Nikkormat camera from the late 1960s as a gift and I treasure it. I took a bunch of photos when I lived in Latin America as a journalist. Someday I'll get them all developed and on my wall!
FM: You also participate in the Producers' Lab. Has that experience helped to shape you as a filmmaker?
LG: It's simply exciting to be around other filmmakers. It keeps the creative juices flowing!
FM: You have worked on a few projects with veteran filmmaker Stanley Nelson, how has this experience impacted your work?
LG: It's so exciting to see how someone brings a scene then a story then a film to life. It's like developing photos—seeing the image slowly appear, then it's magic. Then hopefully you take that magic with you when you make your own films.
FM: You are also working on your own independent film. Can u tell us about that? How have you managed to juggle all of the competing responsibilities?
LG: I'm either the best multi-tasker or I'm insane! It's really challenging. But I think it's great a disciplinary tool. I love trying to juggle historical and contemporary film projects. I've been lucky to work on really impactful historical films for PBS. And I'm also working on a film about a contemporary female singer-songwriter from West Africa, who is a rising sensation and a beacon for women's rights in Mali. Her name is Rokia Traore and my film is called Rokia: Voice of a New Generation.
With historical films, I imagine how the lives of those in the past were, what it was like to trace their steps. With my Rokia film, I get to trace the steps in real time with my subject and see how she is impacting the world right now. I felt a contemporary film on Africa was the perfect next step. From the civil rights era in the US, to a woman who is helping shape the world for women in the coming generation.
FM: What's next for you Laurens?
LG: Finishing Rokia: Voice of a New Generation and producing a two-hour film on the Black Panthers with Stanley Nelson. Should be riveting!
FM: Any advice for new filmmakers?
LG: It's a really really tough landscape out here. The good news there is no one way to make it—there are many ways. If you really want to be in the film business, then do it.
FM: How can people support Jesse Owens?
LG: Spread the news about the May 1st broadcast and help people to tune in! Like us on Facebook, follow us on twitter, and make sure you let your PBS station know that you support films like Jesse Owens!