'The Jesse Owens Story': TV tells of a black star in a white world

For Jesse Owens, vindication takes the form of understanding. Last week, just 48 years after four-gold-Olympic-medal winner James Cleveland (Jesse) Owens was barred from amateur competition, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) officially vacated the suspension. It came too late for the recently deceased controversial athlete.

But a compellingly complex four-hour dramatization of his life - The Jesse Owens Story (syndicated, two days during week of July 8, check local listings for station, days, and times) - documents his sad yet triumphant life in a sensitive, intelligent, and sympathetic format.

Mr. Owens's character flaws and inadequacies are not glossed over, but neither are the human qualities which made him a great competitor, a quiet humanitarian, a confused victim of his own era.

''The Jesse Owens Story'' is not merely a docudrama about a black man who won four gold medals at Hitler's ''master race'' 1936 Olympics and became the toast of the athletic world. It is also about a lonely man who had to fight to maintain his dignity in a racist world, who was unwise in money matters, and who tried to disregard racial slurs because ''that's the way it was back then.''

Accused of being an ''Uncle Tom'' by some, ''a crook'' by others, Owens admitted he wasn't a trailblazer or an inspirational leader, but he acknowledged he had become a role model for young blacks. Sometimes his political judgments were subject to question - in the drama he admits accepting money to support Alfred Landon for president against Franklin D. Roosevelt: ''Hitler wouldn't shake my hand,'' he explains, ''but neither would Roosevelt. Landon did.''

Dorian Harewood makes Owens a thoroughly believable if enigmatic figure as he re-creates the days from high school through the Berlin Olympics and the more recent battles with the courts on nonpayment of income tax charges. Co-starring in the Harve Bennett production are George Stanford Brown and Debbi Morgan. Special guest stars include LeVar Burton, Tom Bosley, Ronny Cox, George Kennedy, Greg Morris, and Ben Vereen.

Richard Irving directs an uneven script by Harold Gast, which makes up for its occasional weakness in continuity by its strength in facing up realistically to all sides of the issues involved - including the racist attitudes of some high-ranking officials.

''The Jesse Owens Story'' is not the triumphant tale of a superathlete - rather it is a study of an especially talented black athlete, average in many other ways, trying to make his way in a white society.

''Play by the rules; you can be a winner. Everybody can be a winner in the game of life,'' he advises a youngster in a moment of euphoria at the end of the drama when he is partially vindicated in court.

Jesse Owens had to wait almost 50 years to be declared the winner. ''The Jesse Owens Story'' adds still another gold medal to his mythic collection.

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