Deborah Riley Draper has crafted an extraordinary film that covers a little known piece of history in the important documentary Olympic Pride, American Prejudice. Having its World Premiere at the LA Film Festival (LAFF) on Saturday, Olympic Pride, American Prejudice chronicles the story of the 18 African American men and women who competed at the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin under Hitler’s racist gaze. Narrated by Blair Underwood, this documentary’s timeliness cannot be underscored enough. 

Hitler’s Third Reich hosted the summer Olympics in Berlin

As many know, the Olympic games are awarded to a city years in advance of the actual competition.

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So when Berlin was awarded the games in 1931, no one knew that Hitler’s subsequent rise to power would overshadow the events. Already the Nuremberg Laws severed the rights of peoples of Jewish, Gypsy or Black origins.

Many nations seriously considered boycotting; the U.S. among them.

Racism at home and abroad

Calling out Hitler and his racism was a little ironic to those African-American athletes and communities in 1930’s America. After all, jobs were scarce and a public lynching was not uncommon in some towns. But a few colleges began accepting talented African- American athletes into their sports programs. Although team sports were still segregated, Track and Field was a sport where African Americans could compete.

As Olympic and NBA champion, Isiah Thomas notes in the film, “sports evened the playing field,” and slowly some Black athletes were getting positive notice. These men and women were training for the 1936 Olympics and a boycott would have spelled disaster for all, but these groundbreakers even more so.

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The 18 African-American athletes looking to compete in Berlin

Most know of Jesse Owens and his astounding performance winning four Gold Medals during the Olympics. But very little had been written or documented about the other African American athletes who also defied Hitler’s social order. Ten men competed in Track and Field – Jesse Owens, Ralph Metcalfe, Matthew Robinson, Cornelius Johnson, Dave Albritton, James LuValle, John Woodruff, Archie Williams, Frederick Pollard and John Brookes; and two women, Tydie Pickett, Louise Stokes. The six men named to the Olympic boxing and weightlifting teams were Art Oliver, Howell King, Willis Johnson, James Clark Atkinson and John Terry.

All had a challenging story to even make the U.S. team, and the difficulties didn’t stop once aboard the S.S. Manhattan ship to Berlin or during the games. But in a thrilling fashion this documentary discloses the obstacles and triumphs for these 18 athletes.

A passion for untold stories

In her director’s statement in her film’s press notes, writer/director Draper mentioned that like most Americans, she too only knew of Owen’s success during the 1936 games.

But when researching the African-American jazz singer, Valida Snow (who was interned by the Nazi Police), Snow mentioned the African American athletes who faced Hitler during the Olympics.

Verifying this story through research, Draper became passionate to get this story told. Using crowdfunding and hustle, Draper compiled a wealth of newsreels, propaganda films, newspapers, photos, and interviews with historians, athletes and family members of these Olympians. The director even traveled to Berlin to interview still-living athletes, fans and journalists to paint a balanced portrait of the events surrounding the 1936 Berlin games.

The documentaries screening in LAFF’s Documentary Competition are indeed a strong bunch, but Draper’s Olympic Pride, American Prejudice is a “must-see” film.