Corruption, propaganda, deceptive cunning, sly villains and marginalized superheros. Disrupted and distorted legacies. The untold stories of the 18 African American star athletes who represented the United States in the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, Germany, feels more like the stuff of fiction. That Jesse Owens is the most recognizable figure from the 1936 Games, tells us that this film is a much needed addition to the historical documentary film canon.
Writer and director Deborah Riley Draper’s “Olympic Pride American Prejudice” (OPAP) has gathered beautiful historic footage and stills and voiceovers from former 1936 Olympians such as Archie Williams and James LuValle. These voices add warmth to the cold hard facts being presented. Additionally, Draper conducted interviews with scholars and Black Olympians from more recent games to gracefully tackle this complex confluence of sociopolitical and race-related factors, which created a perfect storm of events.
As we approach the 80th anniversary of the controversial 1936 Olympic Games and gear up for the 2016 Games in Rio, Brazil this summer, this little-known story is just ripe for the telling.
OPAP recognizes 18 heroic, brave and talented Black athletes and what it meant for them to be participants in the Olympics Games at a time when Jim Crow was in full effect mode, Hitler and his racist ideology was on the rapid rise, and The Great Depression was making an already difficult existence, even more so for African Americans in the United States. OPAP should be required viewing for the 2016 Olympians this summer; it would serve as a humbling reminder of the sacrifices that were made, and the roads that were paved before them so they could have the privilege of focusing solely on their performances.
OPAP teases out important, yet often overlooked facts, such as how Black athletes were not allowed to compete in contact sports in the Olympics, like basketball, baseball or wrestling. This fact likely helped account for the scant number of African American Olympians at the games, out of the 400 total athletes who represented the United States in 1936.
The first half of the film revolves around the tensions between those who felt that “participation [in the games] would do irreparable harm,” who believed that “the moral issue involved [was] greater than the benefit.” The first half also follows the athletes (particularly those the OPAP focuses upon) who felt that their entire athletic careers had been leading up to this opportunity to showcase their world class abilities. Prevalent questions surrounding the games like, “Should the United States boycott the 1936 Olympics” and “If Blacks and Jews are sent to the games, will they be safe in Nazi Germany?” fueled the domestic conflict and inspired a plan of cunning deception enacted by the Nazi Party.
When 1912 Olympian, Avery Brundage, representing the American Olympic Association, visited Nazi Germany, his stay was so carefully curated that he found no evidence of discrimination and concluded that Black and Jewish athletes would be welcome. This was all staged to serve Hitler’s interest of avoiding a United States boycott of the Olympics games and further shroud his nation in propaganda. From the perspective of the 18 Black Olympic hopefuls who were already coming from a racist nation, a boycott seemed hypocritical. They were much more concerned with being able to showcase their athletic prowess on the most prestigious athletic world stage.
The Depression and thriving Jim Crow in conjunction with the rise of the Nazis– post Nuremberg Laws (which, as narrator, Blair Underwood eloquently states, “provided the legal framework for the systematic persecution of Jews and other minorities”) set the stage for what would become the most fraught and controversial Olympic Games in history.
Although the film takes on a huge, complex subject matter, OPAP is expertly researched and Draper exhibits a masterful use of archival footage acquired from UCLA Film Archive and The Holocaust Museum, to name a couple venues. She even traveled to Berlin, Germany to interview former athletes, sports journalists and spectators from the historic period. The quality of OPAP indicates a labor of love and, although the documentary covers the merging of several significant historic events, the pacing is beautifully rendered, and the film is dexterous in its movement toward an exciting denouement, culminating in the Opening Ceremonies and a rash of exciting, triumphant, heartbreaking, and anger-inducing events.
One of the most inspiring aspects of the film is how Draper deeply humanizes the athletes and ensures that the audience sees them as multidimensional individuals with strong opinions, feelings, rich family lives and careers beyond sports–No dumb jocks here! She is even sensitive to the unique plights of the only two African American female Olympians, Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett, and how their experiences, blanketed with another layer of marginalization at the Berlin Olympics, differed from their male counterparts. This represents a thoughtful stroke of filmmaking and a microcosm of a well-conceived and skillfully executed documentary overall.
“Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” is now available on various home video formats, DVD, Digital rental or purchase, and Blu-ray. Watch the film’s trailer below.
Nella Fitzgerald has her Master’s Degree in Cinema and Media Studies from UCLA. She is an Independent Film Curator and Festival Programming Consultant. Her 10 year old daughter’s favorite film is “Citizen Kane.” She has spent the last year teaching Visual Analysis and yoga to elementary students at Roses in Concrete Community School in Oakland, CA. Find her on Twitter @Nellafitzz or read her blog at: Nelledejour.blogspot.com.