‘Olympic Pride, American Prejudice’: Film Review
This timely documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympics coincides with the official opening of the Rio Summer Games.
Deborah Riley Draper’s revealing account of the 1936 Olympics arrives at a particularly conflicted juncture in American social and political affairs. With seemingly daily debates emerging over law enforcement treatment of African-Americans, the impending departure from office of the country’s first black president and the commencement of the Rio Olympics in one of the Western hemisphere’s most diverse countries, Olympic Pride, American Prejudice examines our nation’s unresolved racial conflicts through the lens of amateur sports’ most prestigious global event.
Narrated by Blair Underwood, this consistently engaging film concerning the triumph of athletic accomplishment over institutionalized discrimination could capitalize on limited theatrical play to eventually reach a broad, enthusiastic audience in digital and home-entertainment formats.
Just two years after the International Olympic Committee awarded the 1936 Summer Games to Berlin, Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 Germany, seizing upon the Olympics as an opportunity to promote the supposed cultural and racial supremacy of his Third Reich. In the U.S., meanwhile, the Great Depression was taking an unprecedented toll on the country, where segregation of African-Americans endured under pernicious Jim Crow laws. As Nazi policies persecuting Jews, blacks, gypsies and other minorities intensified, a national debate erupted in America, leading to a sizable boycott movement advocating avoidance of the Berlin Olympics. Eighteen African-American athletes found themselves at the center of this international negotiation as they qualified to attend the Games after U.S. athletics leaders voted to participate in the competition following concessions from the Germans.
Sprinter and long-jumper Jesse Owens, the eventual winner of four gold medals in Berlin, was the most famous among them, although African-American team members also included track and field medalists Ralph Metcalfe, Matthew “Mack” Robinson (older brother to baseball great Jackie Robinson), James LuValle, John Woodruff and Archie Williams, as well as four boxers, a weightlifter and women’s track stars Tydie Pickett and Louise Stokes. Familiar as they were with discrimination at home, they were somewhat taken aback by their reception in Berlin, where they were welcomed into a racially integrated Olympic village and warmly greeted by a curious and enthusiastic German public as they demonstrated their athletic prowess. The irony was not lost on the African-American competitors, who returned to a divided country with an aggregate total of 14 medals, only to face endemic discrimination and eventual indifference to most of their accomplishments.
Draper’s thorough research process yields fascinating details on the lives and careers of the athletes, particularly their early histories as amateur competitors, with many emerging from high school athletics to attend prestigious universities like UC Berkeley, Ohio State, UCLA and the University of Chicago. Surviving family members speak passionately and persuasively about the contestants’ conflicted feelings about participating in the Games, their struggles to make the team and their transformative participation in the competition.
Commentators, including contemporary African-American Olympic medalists Carl Lewis and Isiah Thomas, praise the 1936 competitors’ achievements blazing the trail for integrated sports participation, as well as for their exemplary performance under intense international scrutiny. Along with black historians interviewed, they effectively establish the connection between the Olympians’ sacrifices and the emergence of the Civil Rights movement in subsequent decades.
As the first Olympics broadcast on TV and the centerpiece for Nazi propagandist filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s sports documentary magnum opus Olympia, the 1936 Games benefitted from unprecedented media coverage, providing Draper with a wealth of archival photos and film footage. Although much of this content appears familiar, her granular perspective on the African-American athletes focuses the material from a revealingly specific point of view. At the same time, backgrounding Jesse Owens’ better-known accomplishments provides the opportunity to evaluate the inestimable contributions of his teammates as the Americans accumulated the second-highest medal count at the Games.
Along with editors Sandra Christie and Pascal Akesson, Draper constructs a concisely assembled editorial package that covers the essential historical backstory of the 1936 Games while building drama during the competition and establishing a consistently affecting emotional arc throughout.
Distributor: Coffee Bluff Pictures
Production company: Coffee Bluff Pictures
Director-writer-producer: Deborah Riley Draper
Executive producers: Amy Tiemann, Blair Underwood, Michael Draper, Deborah Riley Draper
Director of photography: Jonathan Hall
Music: Cheryl Rogers
Editors: Sandra Christie, Pascal Akesson
Not rated, 90 minutes