Raise your hand if you knew that Jesse Owens wasn’t the only black athlete at the 1936 Olympics. Deborah Riley Draper is not ashamed to admit that there was a time she didn’t know, either. It’s precisely why she made her stunning documentary Olympic Pride, American Prejudice.
“My entire life I thought Jesse was there all alone and he didn’t have any companionship and he was on that boat by himself,” she explains. “But that wasn’t the case.”
There were 17 other black Olympians with Owens, many of whom won medals. Their names are Ralph Metcalfe (4x100-meter relay, gold; 100-meter dash, silver); Jackie Robinson’s older brother, Mack Robinson (200-meter dash, silver); Cornelius Johnson (high jump, gold); Dave Albritton (high jump, silver); James LuValle (400-meter run, bronze); John Woodruff (800-meter run, gold); Archie Williams (400-meter run, gold); Frederick “Fritz” Pollard Jr. (100-meter hurdles, bronze); John Brooks (broad jump); Jack Wilson (bantamweight boxing, silver); Art Oliver (heavyweight boxing); Howell King (heavyweight boxing); Willis Johnson (heavyweight boxing); James Clark Atkinson (middleweight boxing); John Terry (weightlifting); Tidye Pickett (women’s track and field); and Louise Stokes (women’s track and field). They hailed from various parts of the country, from Pasadena, Calif., to Chicago; from Massachusetts to North Dakota.
Draper, a former advertising executive who burst onto the scene in 2012 with the acclaimed black-model-focused Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution, found these men and women accidentally while contemplating another project.
“I was actually looking at Valaida Snow, who was a trumpet player. She was interned in the concentration camp for two years, and so, when she returned home, she referenced these athletes, and I was astounded by the fact that there were 17 other people than Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics.”
Draper believed “the fact that they were present and accounted for, [along with] their presence on the medal stand, sent a message on both sides of the Atlantic.” Eighty years later, Owens’ solo accomplishments still wowed enough to warrant a big-screen film. So why wouldn’t the story of all 18 black Olympians be even more awesome, especially given the era?
“I thought this was a rather important story to tell because there is a lot of irony and paradox when you look at the story,” Draper explains. “So there’s the irony and paradox of going over to Germany, Nazi Germany, and actually having almost two weeks of your life totally changed and transformed, and being free to sit in the outside café and being free to have a bus pass and travel all over the city, sit in the front of the bus and do what you want and make friends with men and women from around the world. So I found that very fascinating to have had that experience and then to come back to America, and the freedom that you had in Nazi Germany is gone, poof, in probably the most politically charged situation in the history of the world, and these guys navigated that.”
Assembling this story wasn’t as easy as one might assume. Draper encountered a lot of unexpected obstacles. Official Olympic pictures were often wrongly captioned, with the subjects, even those with medals, misidentified. “We had pictures, so we had faces with no names,” she recalls.
To put the pieces of the puzzle together, the Atlanta-based filmmaker and her team turned to a variety of sources, including such leading black newspapers of the day as the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier and Baltimore Afro-American. Much later, stories in Ebony, as well as obituaries, also helped. Draper, herself, even made an emotional journey to Berlin. Olympic Pride features an enlightening, subtitled interview with a German spectator from the 1936 Olympics. In all, it took four years to complete. The result, like Versailles ’73, which Draper also directed through her production company, Coffee Bluff Pictures, is astounding.
Although Blair Underwood, who does double duty as an executive producer, officially narrates Olympic Pride, the voices of some of the actual Olympians can be heard as well. In fact, their voices take over much of the documentary. Some of their voices can be heard through their children, even if it is heartbreak that sadly shines through the most. Having these great accomplishments ignored or, worse yet, negated by racism was too painful for many of the Olympians to relive. So much so that some of their children were unaware of the magnitude of their parents’ accomplishments until Draper came calling.
“What we really wanted to show was, as powerful as this moment became and as powerful as this moment was, particularly around the world, we didn’t respect this moment in this country in the manner that we should,” says Draper, referring to the role of “American prejudice” noted in the documentary’s title. “We kind of swept it to the side. However, as much as we swept it to the side, these 18 people impacted every athlete that you see ever.”
Editor's note: Olympic Pride, American Prejudice, which has been screened at several film festivals, including the Los Angeles Film Festival and the American Black Film Festival, opens for theatrical release on Aug. 5 in New York City and Santa Monica, Calif., with plans to expand to 10 cities in September. Keep up with the schedule at 1936OlympicsMovie.com.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.