The 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany was a battleground of propaganda on both sides of the Atlantic. Today, most people understand that Jesse Owens was the figurehead for American greatness during the Olympics. His 4 gold medals in Track and Field events shamed Hitler and trounced the Nazi concept of Aryan master race superiority, facts played up by the American press. What was ignored, sadly, were Owens’ 17 African American teammates who had distinguished themselves as exceptional athletes, many of whom had won medals. These unsung heroes, their trials, struggles, triumphs and the aftermath of their journey from Berlin back to the US are highlighted in an incredible documentary Olympic Pride, American Prejudice by Deborah Riley Draper, which enjoyed an encore screening at the LA Film Festival.
Draper leaves nothing to the imagination in this important documentary about our historical past that many should find disturbing to look at as we assume there was a great canyon divide between Nazi Germany and the US which is patently innacurate. US racial policies were similar to Germany’s Nuremberg Laws. Both deprived citizenship rights, political and social equality: for those in Germany it was against Jews, gypsies, communists, etc. who were increasingly viewed as enemies of the Third Reich. Similarly, African Americans in the South and less so in the North were not treated as true citizens of the US, a parallel which the filmmaker subtly emphasizes in Olympic Pride, American Prejudice.
In an overall takeaway from this chronicle, Deborah Riley Draper reveals how the 1936 Olympics was a groundbreaking event for African Americans. Not only did the 18 African Americans who qualified for the Olympic team show up racist Nazi Germany by uplifting African Americans’ humanity, athletic prowess, brilliance and perseverance, they stood tall in the face of US Southern racists, Hilter’s kindred spirits. They even proved their mettle to those more subtle hypocritical racists of the North who treacherously discriminated against them with institutional racism, depriving them of equality of opportunity in housing, education, employment, civil service jobs, the entertainment industry, professional sports and the military.
Though the North was allegedly less discriminatory, the country was replete with inequality and injustice. It was particularly reprehensible (a throwback to slavery), through Southern Jim Crow laws which insured oppression with the concept of “separate but equal:” blacks were segregated from sharing bathrooms, schools, water fountains, neighborhoods, consanguinity, indeed, any proximity with whites that would prompt race mixing. Miscegenation, frowned upon in Northern cities, in the South was the equivalent of Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg law banning marriages between Jews and Germans. Marriages between whites and blacks were illegal and if a black man was even suspected of lifting his eyes in the direction of a white woman, it was enough to get him lynched.
Amidst this backdrop of Southern hatred and oppression and the North’s brand of smarmy, hypocritical racial inequity, when exceptional African American athletes were given the opportunity to shine in the Olympics, they leaped at the chance. Because of their participation, during this event they set a precedent for breaking down the oppressive racial barriers as they raised up a civil rights consciousness that was to flourish on their own turf, not in the larger social mainstream. The noted participation of these individuals spread far and wide in the black communities. Power was engendered that was to augment during WWII when African Americans distinguished themselves with meritorious service in the segregated military. Eventually, it fomented the strides in the latter 1940s to bring about legislation (Brown vs. Board of Education) and the subsequent rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
From the outset of the film to the conclusion, Draper focuses on the importance of the Berlin Olympics which almost didn’t happen. But because it did African Americans continued to strive for a voice and place in the American social structure, even though censorship in the national media prevented information about 17 of the 18 African American athletes from being disseminated. The terrible irony is that Nazi Germany actually recorded, acknowledged and appreciated the African America’s performance greatness more so than the US media, despite the fact that many of the other Olympians were medal winners and had broken records.
The filmmaker uncovers salient information about the 1936 Olympics and the cultural, social and political imbroglios which nearly prevented American participation in the event. There were protests to boycott Hitler’s Nazi Germany because of the Nuremberg Laws. Draper reveals the backstory of the attempted boycott, who was involved and how individuals managed to push through to send athletes to Germany despite the movement which some demeaned as a pro-Communist, “Jewish” plot.
Draper cobbles together video and audio interviews and testimony from around thirty-seven individuals who discuss the events with specificity. Though many of the Olympians have since died, she was able to include commentary from a few of the 1936 Olympian team who competed (Archie Williams, James Lu Valle), and observations from other Olympians’ spouses, children and relatives. She includes video commentary of renowned professional coaches, professors, Olympic athletes in later decades, researchers, historians, experts and more. Her editing of black and white photographs, archival film footage and memorabilia and most wonderfully, the film footage of the 1936 Olympic games, Hitler, and snippets of a variety of the events reveal her monumental and spectacular efforts.
The historical record she examines is precise and forthright. She discloses the events after the attempted boycott, and we are introduced to the athletes’ histories and accomplishments, their greatness, their treatment in Berlin and the poignant equality and fine treatment they experienced in the Olympic Village. However, Draper also reveals the injustice rife in the hearts of American coaches, whether prompted by Germany’s discrimination or not. Despite promises to the contrary, two Jewish athletes were not allowed to compete and African American women were discriminated against; both a rotten blight of racism which had no logical answer or protest that came to light.
This profound and revelatory documentary masterfully written, directed and produced by Deborah Riley Draper, with stentorian narration by Blair Underwood who Executive Produced is a must-see for those with a passion for history, the Olympics, champion athletes, humanitarian ideals and a curiosity about the subtle twists and understated turns in the US Civil Rights Movement. The 1936 Olympics was a milestone for the US against Hitler, that Germany realized was due to its African American athletes. In the face of such discrimination they were honored when their own country found the necessity to keep their exploits under wraps.
But some truths will out, regardless, a point of Draper’s film: the truth of African Americans’ perseverance to thrive and establish their voice in the face of a culture that continually attempted to silence them, especially after the Olympians returned to receive little acknowledgement for their achievements. This is an uplifting theme amidst the tragedy of their treatment. Draper’s film is an indelible tribute to their timeless grace, power and strength that all human beings can appreciate for all time.
Olympic Pride, American Prejudice screened at the American Black Film Festival in documentary competition. The filmmaker is taking the film to Brazil this summer, for a special screening event at the historical Cinemateca do MAM (MAM Cinematheque), just in time for the next Olympic Games.