Deborah Riley Draper’s “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” Shines a Light on the Black Olympic Heroes of 1936

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BY SERGIE WILLOUGHBY

Black OlympiansThe 2016 Olympics will end this Sunday, but the story of 18 African American Olympians who in 1936 traveled to Berlin to compete in the Summer Olympics was commemorated in the new documentary, “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice.” Most of us know well the story of Jesse Owens who won four gold medals in the long jump competition, but what about Jack Wilson who won the silver medal for boxing; and Cornelius Johnson who won the gold medal for the high jump?  

Created, directed and executive produced by filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper along with executive producers Blair Underwood, who also serves as narrator, Dr. Amy Tiemann, and Michael A. Draper, “Olympic Pride” tells the story of the forgotten (or unknown) Black Olympians who elegantly represented America on the world stage at a time when they lived through racial discrimination back home in their own country as well as abroad. At the time, Jim Crow laws – the practice of segregating Black people  – were in effect in America, but so was racial prejudice in Berlin. According to a 1936 article in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, Hitler refused to shake Jesse’s Owens’ and the other Black medalists’ hands upon their victories.

Here, I caught up with Draper to talk about the legacy of these
Olympic heroes, how that legacy has transformed sports and what that
legacy means for today’s Black
athletes.  

Sergie Willoughby: What inspired you to tell the story of these 18 Black Olympians?

Deborah Riley Draper: The story is incredible, but what’s interesting about it is the irony and the paradox of the story and the fact that it had faded into obscurity. You have 18 athletes who are on the world stage and no one knows they’re there except Jesse Owens. And so these 18 African Americans who included Ralph Metcalf who would later become a congressman; Archie Williams who would become a Tuskegee Airman; Mac Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s older brother, all have the distinction of being the only Olympic athletes who had to fight both Hitler and Jim Crow to be able to compete in an Olympic game. This makes their role in the struggle for equality and the integration of sport critical and really a paramount point in WWII history, black history and American history.

S.W.: How did you come across the story?  

D.R.D.: There was not a story in existence about the 18 Black Olympians. This is the first film to actually deal with the subject matter, but there was a news article with someone who interviewed Valaida Snow who was an African American woman who was interned in a Nazi camp. She mentioned the number of African Americans that had been in the Olympics. She said she wished she had left when they left to go back to America. So that piqued my interest because I thought it was only Jesse Owens.  At that point, I was only able to name him. Then I discovered there were 17 more. And two were women!

S.W.: Based on your research, how do you think they were they received in Berlin? Do you think they experienced the same racial issues in Berlin in 1936 that they experienced in America?

D.R.D.: I think it was exactly like America except that there was no Jim Crow. They wrote in their diaries that it was the best experience of their lives. There was racial discrimination and prejudice on both sides of the Atlantic, but in Germany they could get on the bus and sit anywhere they wanted; they could go into restaurants and shops. People wanted to take pictures with them; people wanted their autographs. They were international superstars. They had a certain level of freedom they didn’t have at home in America.  

S.W.: Was the documentary well received when it was shown this summer at film festivals?

D.R.D.: Absolutely. We received positive reviews in the NY Times, the LA Times, The Hollywood Reporter, and Shadow & Act. People are responding to this story as relevant. We’re talking about a time when African Americans were representing our country, showing amazing grace and patriotism yet they weren’t treated as first class citizens. They were treated as second-class citizens, but still exhibited this incredible patriotism in representing their country overseas in the Olympics. The story shows their heroism and courage, which was forgotten.  And this was a time of Jim Crow when lynchings were at their highest numbers. 

It was a time when African Americans had a contentious relationship often with law enforcement – very similar to what we’re talking about in the news today, so these stories are relevant and these athletes teach us how to respond. This is our cultural inheritance. We don’t have to keep re-learning the same lessons; we need to study these great heroes to understand how we can apply what they went through to our situations today so that we don’t have to keep talking about it 80 years from now in the context of current contemporary issues.

S.W.: What, if any, challenges did you encounter while making the film?

D.R.D.: As an independent filmmaker, funding is always a challenge. This is private equity funded, and we are excited that we, as executive producers, were able to work together to make the movie happen, along with the people who participated in our crowd funding. The other challenge was finding the names and lives of these 18 people because the information had been buried for 80 years. African American stories are often hard to dig up, and this was definitely a case of that.     

S.W.: Do you think sport has a way of bringing people together and bridging audiences? Did you find that to be the case in making a film based on sports?  

D.R.D.: Yes, it’s a wonderful playing field. It’s one of the first places that the playing field is leveled. If you have five people in a race and they all have the same starting line and they all hear the same gun, the fastest and the best person will win.

S.W.: What do you want people to takeaway from the film? What impact do you hope it has on this year’s Olympics, for example?

D.R.D.: I want people to take away the fact that there were 18 incredible African American athletes in 1936. And what they contributed to the world is the integration of sport. They are a part of our civil rights process. They are a part of the struggle for equality and they are the ones who planted the seeds when we look at Simone [Biles] and Gabby [Douglas]. They are the fruit of the labor of these 18 athletes. They were able to transcend racism and discrimination and violent Jim Crow, and they became exceptional and excellent, in spite of all the challenges that were put in front of them. They proved that we have the right to be on the world stage. We don’t have to prove that again; we simply have to remain on the world stage. 

S.W.: What advice do you have for other aspiring African American filmmakers who want to tell our stories?  

D.R.D.: Just start telling your stories. Don’t wait for someone’s green light; don’t wait for an agent. Get out your iPhone and tell the stories you want to tell.  Digital filmmaking has democratized the process. Whether it’s a 1-minute film or a 101- minute film, just make your film.   

S.W.: Where can people see the film?

D.R.D.: Check it out on Comcast Xfinity on Demand, which is really exciting. There’s a limited engagement until September 4. The DVD is currently on pre-order. We encourage everyone to order the DVD for friends and family. Watch it around the holidays and really begin to talk about implicit bias; talk about our history; educate ourselves and correlate it to our current and present-day state into the future we aspire to have. The film offers great American lessons and great human lessons that we need to know about. We need to respect what we’ve done and understand what we’ve done.