Filled with spine-chilling and horrifying footage of events leading up to and during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Olympic Pride, American Prejudice follows the 18 African-American athletes who competed in one of the most controversial Olympic Games in history.
This documentary goes so far as to courageously confront the Jesse Owens bias in American media while shining light on the lives of the 17 other black athletes. It tackles the problems abroad, as well as those right here at home.
Writer and director Deborah Riley Draper looks deep into the lives of the amazing Olympian heroes and heroines who defied the odds, and whose stories were rarely, if ever, told. Featuring the voices of Archie Williams and James LuValle and interviews with friends and family of several of the Olympians, Olympic Pride, American Prejudice gets FF2 Media’s highest rating. (LMB: 5/5)
Review by FF2 Associate Lindsy M. Bissonnette
In 1936, track and field was the only sport that black athletes were allowed to compete in due to rules against mingling races in contact sports. America planned to boycott the Olympics because we did not want to support Germany’s state-sponsored racism, despite our own problems with racism at home. After weeks of controversy, a vote was taken to decide America’s participation. The final tally was 58 to 56, meaning American athletes would have a chance to compete.
In 1932, Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes both qualified for the Olympics in Los Angeles, but faced cruelty from their own team and coach. On the train ride to Los Angeles, one of their own teammates dumped water on them while they were sleeping. When they finally got to the games, their coach — George Vreeland — replaced them both at the last minute with white athletes. The 1936 Olympics provided a chance for these two fierce females to earn their place in history. Tidye Pickett was the first ever African-American woman to compete in the Olympic Games, and was expected to take home the gold medal for the 80-meter hurdles. But in the semifinals she tripped on the second hurdle, breaking her foot. Louise watched as Tidye was carried off the track, and vowed to take home the gold for both of them. As Louise got to the stadium to warm up, her coach told her that she was to be replaced by a white athlete. Louise would never race again, the 1940 Olympics would be cancelled due to World War II.
Unfortunately the racial prejudice did not stop there. Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, both involved in the 4×100 meter relay, were also benched the day before their event. Olympic Pride, American Prejudice alludes to Glickman and Stoller’s Jewish heritage as the reason for the switch to appease their German hosts. Their coach insisted that they were replaced by the teams’ faster sprinters: Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. One of history’s ironies.
In a last-minute effort to appear liberal and tolerant, Germany added Gretel Bergman to their team. Bergman was an award-winning and record-setting high jumper who had previously been expelled from German teams because of her Jewish heritage. Bergman’s parents sent her to Great Britain for a chance to compete, but Germany forced her to return to Berlin. Even though she tied for the new German record, she was removed from the team, her record struck only weeks before the Olympics. Later, Germany claimed she was unable to compete due to injury and had been expelled due to failure to perform.
Howard King also never got a chance to compete. He was sent home due to “homesickness,” or so his coach claimed. When the Olympians finally returned home, only Jesse Owens received praise and appreciation; the others were barely acknowledged. The remaining 17 Olympic athletes were back exactly where they started, feeling that their hard work went unnoticed.
Not only is Olympic Pride, American Prejudice beautifully made, but filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper also tells a story that conclusively proves the importance of role models. These brave and amazing Olympians paved the way for future athletes. Not only were they competing for medals they were competing for equality in America.
As we watch the 2016 Rio Olympics in the coming days, let us remind ourselves of what the Olympics are truly about, promoting peace. Upon its creation, Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, hoped that they would be a way of bringing people together–even countries at war–in hopes of finding a path to peace. As we root for our favorite teams, we must take a moment to appreciate how far we have come, and accept that there is still much farther to go.
© Lindsy M. Bissonnette FF2 Media (8/8/16)
Top: The promotional poster for Olympic Pride, American Prejudice.
Middle Photo: The boys in the USA uniforms for the opening ceremony.
Bottom: US teams in uniform for the opening ceremony.
Photo Credits: Coffee Bluff Pictures
Talking head docs are always tough to categorize, but since there are scenes of two women talking to a woman filmmaker about their mother, we give this one a yes!
Much attention is given to the relationship between Olympians Tidye and Louise, describing how they became friends over their shared love of sports, and how they coped with feeling disrespected by their coaches as well as some of the other athletes.
The 1936 Olympic Heroes, all 18 of them, in alphabetical order. Thank you for your bravery, your endurance, your passion, strength and skill, and thank you for serving your country:
David Albritton (High Jump, Silver Medalist), Cornelius Johson (High Jump, Gold Medalist), James LuValle (400M Run, Bronze Medalist), Ralph Metcalfe (4×100 Meter Relay, Gold Medalist; 100M Dash, Silver Medalist), Jesse Owens (100M Dash, Gold Medalist; 200M Dash, Gold Medalist; Broad (long) Jump, Gold Medalist; 4x100M Relax, Gold Medalist), Frederick “Fritz” Pollard, Jr (100M Hurdles, Bronze Medalist), Matthew “Mack” Robinson (200M Dash, Silver Medalist), Archibald “Archie” Williams (400M Run, Gold Medalist), Jack Wilson (Bantamweight Boxing, Silver Medalist), John Woodruff (800M Run, Gold Medalist), John Brooks, Art Oliver, Howard King, James Clark Atkinson, Willis Johnson, John Terry, Tidye Pickett, and Louise Stokes.
Peier Shen’s Interview with Writer/Director Deborah Draper
Q: How did you become interested in the 1936 Olympic game? And during your research, at what point did you start to think that it is necessary to retell the story?
A: The minute I found out that there were four black athletes outside of Jesse Owens and that included two women, I knew it was necessary to tell the story because the story is a confluence of politics, social justice, cultural meetings, gender, race, discrimination, every possible thing that we discuss today and contemporary social justice of underpinning that that politician stem from the ‘30s. So being able to understand the dynamics of what these athletes went through and how they were able to persevere and how they were able to stand and face such incredible adversaries, Jim Crow and Adolf Hitler, I thought it was important to tell the story.
Q: Why do you think it’s critical to assume a critical distance from making this story into another American triumph story?
A: Well there was the American triumph story because they were able to persevere in spite of what was happening in America, but beyond that story is: they stayed in Nazi Germany for 10 days and experienced a level of freedom that they had never tasted before and that helped fuel in each of them a desire to have equality and a desire to have that freedom again. Whether or not America was ready to give it to them or not…
Q: And there was a debate between NAACP and the president of the U.S. Olympic Association about….
A: No, the debate was within the countries. The debate was between the Olympic organizers who wanted to go to Germany and the Jewish community and the Catholic community and lots of people who felt going to Germany would actually be in support of Hitler, not necessarily in support of the games. What that means is you’re standing by him. The NAACP didn’t want the African American athletes to go because they wanted to show solidarity with the Jewish community, but the black newspapers wanted the athletes to go because they felt that this would be a critical point on the world stage in which the demonstration of equality would come through.
Q: So what do you think personally? Did you think… Did they make the right decision? Is it right for the Americans?
A: Absolutely they made the right decision because if the decision had not happened, I mean I don’t know what would’ve happened, but I do know in terms of sports that this opened the door for African American athletes. I do know in the utilization of sports and sport heroes to opt in the struggle for equal rights that began importance because these guys led to the emergence of Jesse Robinson and Muhammad Ali, so the connective tissue back to ’36 is very clear. So if we didn’t have ’36, I don’t know where the jumping off point would be.
Q: So what did this say about women’s participation in changing the society’s perceptions of themselves?
A: Well I mean it’s definitely a gender story. The fact that you had two black women under the age of 21 participating in the Olympics in Nazi Germany in 1936, that created possibilities. That created hope and that created optimism that you have a young woman who’s in high school and a high school outside of Boston, Massachusetts, in Nazi Germany. Even though the American cultures ditched her, she was there. She was present and she was in the opening ceremony. She met Hitler. You can’t take that away from her. You can’t reduce the significance of her performance.
Q: Do you think the media today fails to cover this kind of story? The story to fairly present athletes of non-white races on this international platform. Like this year, there were controversies over Simone Manuel, the African American woman who won gold…
A: They cut away from it. The media that covers sports, the journalist, the cameraman, they are citizens of our world, so the decisions that they make on their jobs are the result of the bias that they bring to work. Until we peel back the biases that we carry with us every day, those biases will affect media coverage. They’ll affect story-tellings. They’ll affect the decisions we make when we sit on a jury. They’ll affect the decisions we make when we’re in the booth voting for president.
That bias is still present. It just meanders in different forms. We have to reframe the discussion and if someone’s saying something about Gaby Douglass’s hair, add on to that in Twitter, we say, “Hey, this strong young woman and her hair is not the discussion point. Her representing America as an elite top athlete at the top of her game in spite of what you all are doing is the point, and that’s what we have to do.
Q: So FF2 Media has a Penny Blog that dedicates to women filmmakers and so we are wondering what kind of advice you will give for aspiring young female filmmakers.
A: Well the best advice I can give you is go make something. Don’t wait for someone to give you the green light. Green light yourself. Grab your friend, grab you iPhone, grab your paper and pencil, write a script and go shoot it and it is with free software give your friends…. Essentially what I’m saying is that: Filmmaking is a business, right, and we all get to be entrepreneurs in that business, so we get to make our decisions. I am saying that a pencil and a piece of paper you have access to so you can write the script. I am saying more than likely you have access to an iPhone or/or cell phone, so you can shoot your script, and there’s free editing software you can download so you can edit your script. You can screen that script at your house and invite people over and you keep doing that until the budgets and the scripts get bigger and bigger.