As the 2016 Summer Olympics comes to a close, we felt it apropos to share a special story about a group of brave athletes who made history by defying Jim Crow and Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. While the world is familiar with Jesse Owens’ story, there is a new film that tells the largely unknown story of the 17 other black Olympians who represented their country during a politically tense and volatile time.
DiverseCinemadb.com had the privilege to sit down with award-winning writer and director Deborah Riley Draper and actor/director Blair Underwood to discuss their collaboration on Olympic Pride, American Prejudice, a new documentary about the 16 men and two African American female athletes who represented a country that considered them second-class citizens.
As Draper describes in the film’s synopsis, the athletes experienced things that they were not expecting - applause, warm welcomes, integrated Olympic villages and the respect of their competitors. They were world heroes yet returned home to a short-lived glory. This story is complicated. This story is triumphant but unheralded. It is a story of young black men and women finding their place in Jim Crow America is as relevant today as it was almost 80 years ago.
DiverseCinemadb.com: During the Q&A after the film, you spoke about how this journey first began. You were doing research on a well-known jazz singer. Tell us more about that...
Riley Draper: I was doing research on Valaida Snow who was an amazing jazz singer, and like many jazz singers from the south, especially from the deep south, she went to Europe to try and find her way. During Hitler’s propaganda campaign when he was sweeping the clubs…she was performing and she was arrested. And so she spent two years in a concentration camp. When she returned (to the United States) she said, “Man, I really should have gotten on the boat back after the Olympics with these 18 athletes.” And I said, “What is she talking about?” And so that is Pandora’s Box opened. Not only was she accurate, but there is just a wonderful story behind these people and how they got to Germany and what happened to them before, during and after their heroic turn on the medal stands and in front of Hitler. That led to more excavation, more forensic research and finding their names. Because on a lot of lists, everyone was Johnson. There’s Willis Johnson, there’s Rob Johnson…everyone was Johnson. It was just wrong in so many articles. So, figuring out the correct names, were they were from, where they went to school, finding their families, was kind of the first thing. The USOC (the U.S. Olympic Commission) didn’t quite keep the records on the African American athletes.
DiverseCinemadb.com: How did you and Mr. Underwood connect?
Underwood: I don’t know her. I just met her in the lobby just now. (laughter)
Riley Draper: He didn’t really do any of the narration. I just took a whole bunch of LA Law episodes and spliced the words together to match the script. (laughter) But seriously, Blair was at the top of our list. Lacy Barnes, the line producer reached out and somehow found the right email and sent our letter of interest to Mr. Underwood and he watched the trailer. We were like, “He actually watched the trailer. Oh, my God!” He telephoned us personally. We had a conversation and found him to not only be cool and talented, but extremely smart and interested in history, and interested in the community aspects of storytelling and the cultural inheritance that we get to give people through the film.
DiverseCinemadb.com: Mr. Underwood, why was this story important to you?
Underwood: Thank you, Deborah. I have to tell you, that for me, it fired on two different levels – there was the story that I knew nothing of. And then I did my due diligence and I went and looked at the trailer. I knew Deborah had directed another film and produced called Versailles ‘73 which is another whole story that is amazing. I went online and saw a lot of interviews she had done. I wanted to see who this person was who was contacting me because I was interested just based on the story. So, I saw the trailer and I said, “Oh, she’s an artist. She’s the real deal.” So, I couldn’t get to the phone fast enough just to talk to her to not only say, I would be honored to narrate the film, but if I could come play on the team and do whatever I can to help tell the story and get the word out.
DiverseCinemadb.com: What was the moment that really changed you while working on this project?
Riley Draper: I think it’s the opening footage that you see. The first time I heard that it blew me away because we’ve all seen a million track meets. But when he said, “That negro is dangerous, he’s threatening, he’s gaining on him, he’s a black panther, he’s a supernova…” It was everything I needed to know about the journey I was about to embark on. It was one of the first pieces of footage I found which is why it’s in the trailer (which was cut over a year and a half ago.) We just kept listening to it and it really helped us understand what 1936 was context-wise. This was a very transitional piece of history, not just for African-Americans but the world. Because you’re coming out of the Depression, the War…which wreaked havoc on Germany, and they’re trying to figure out a way to rebuild their country, very much like FDR was doing in the United States. You see, you have these two countries rebuilding themselves. FDR has his work programs and Adolph Hitler has his work programs. FDR’s inauguration is January 1933. Hitler’s is March 1933. There are a lot of parallels happening between the two countries, then you have these 18 African Americans who are trying to find their way and then the Olympics come. I was just drawn in hook, line and sinker.
DiverseCinemadb.com: This is a highly political film. You can’t ignore it. What I found really interesting was how these young athletes were not able to vote. Yet, at the same time, they were representing their country in the Olympics. How did you maintain balance in telling this story as an African American woman?
Riley Draper: I don’t know if I approached it as I’m an African American woman telling the story. I think that’s inherent. I didn’t put a stake in the ground there. But I put a stake in the ground around trying to tell as much of the story as I could from as many perspectives as I could. So, you see a Jewish perspective, a German perspective, an American perspective and an African American perspective. But the central figures were 18 African Americans, and I was going to protect them in terms of making sure that they were central to the story. I wanted to make sure we understood all of the things they had to face. The big things, the small things, the personal things, as well as the political things.
DiverseCinemadb.com: Mr. Underwood, in your narration, there is a rhythm. You’re an actor, but you’re not acting in this instance. What were some of the markers for you while telling this story?
Underwood: I think one of the traps in narrating is sounding like an announcer. We can all do that and we all know what that sounds like. It wasn’t about that, and especially since this is all about these athletes…it’s all very personal. It’s personal individually and collectively, as a race, as a human race…and as a country. For me, it was about telling the story one on one. And because Deborah was so intimately involved with the images and the story as a director, she would direct me. She would say, “Now this scene is more dramatic” or “This scene is slower” or “This scene is more heartfelt.”
Riley Draper: It was kind of weird though to direct another director.
Underwood: I just took that hat off and said to her, “Tell me what you need.”
DiverseCinemadb.com: Tell us your vision for the film?
Riley Draper: Our vision is to obviously have distribution, theatrical and broadcast. But there will be a book written, and an educational curriculum as well. That way, we can service middle schools and high schools properly. This documentary will provide some supplementary education to teachers.
DiverseCinemadb.com: What were some of the reactions from the family members?
Riley Draper: None of them had the opportunity to see their parents in this way. All of them were shocked, amazed, impressed and proud to see their parents at the Olympics and at the opening ceremonies. They were able to see really personal footage like them working out, chilling at the (Olympic) Village, talking to people of German descent…just doing everything that normal teenagers do…and under the most extreme circumstances. They were thrilled and in tears.
Olympic Pride, American Prejudice enjoyed a sold-out world premiere as an official selection in the documentary category at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival in June and is also an official selection at the 2016 Traverse City Film Festival. The film will open in 10 additional cities in September and is available for pre-order on Amazon.com. To learn more about the film and upcoming screenings, visit www.1936olympicsmovie.com.
Writer/Director: Deborah Riley Draper
Narrator & Executive Producer: Blair Underwood
Executive Producer: Dr. Amy Tiemann
Executive Producer: Michael A. Draper
Director of Photography: Jonathan Hall
Line Producer: Lacy Barnes
Production Coordinator: Tandi Reddick
Post Production Supervisor: Eric Johnson