Wednesday, June 8, 2016

LAFF Q&A: 'Olympic Pride, American Prejudice'

By Darlene Donloe

The documentary, Olympic Pride, American Prejudice, directed by Atlanta filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper (Variety’s “10 Documakers To Watch”), and narrated by Blair Underwood, tells the story of the 18 Black athletes who participated in the 1936 Olympics.

18?? Yes, 18!  In actuality, there were 17 other Black athlete, besides Jesse Owens, who defied Jim Crow racism and Nazi Germany, by participating in and winning numerous medals in the 1936 Olympics. Who knew?  Not many?  Sans those who needed to know, it was a well kept secret. The world premiere of Olympic Pride, American Prejudice debuted at the LA Film Festival.

July 1936-Onboard the SS Manhattan: L-R, standing: Dave Albritton (High Jump Silver Medalist; Cornelius Johnson (High Jump Gold Medalist); Tidye Pickett (80m Hurdles); Ralph Metcalfe (100m Silver Medalist, 4x100m Gold Medalist); Jimmy Clark (Boxing); Mack Robinson (200m Silver Medalist). Background, between Clark & Robinson: Willis Johnson (Boxing). Kneeling: John Terry (Weightlifting); John Brooks (Broad Jump). Photo credit: Olympic Pride, American Prejudice LLC.

Through a plethora of documented, archived materials that included photos, interviews newspaper articles, newsreel film, yearbooks and never-before-seen footage, the story of the 18 brave and mostly unsung athletes is told. There is also material from the personal archival collections of Olympians and Foundations in both the U.S. and Germany.

The film features interviews with Isiah Thomas (1980 Olympian, 3-time NBA Champion), Carl Lewis (nine-time Olympic gold medalist and assistant coach of Univ. of Houston), Joanna Jayes (2004 Gold medalist and UCLA assistant track coach) and more.

Deborah Riley Draper and Blair Underwood

I recently spoke to Director Deborah Riley Draper (DRD), Executive Producer Dr. Amy Tiemann (AT) and narrator Blair Underwood (BU) about their latest project.

DD: Deborah, why did you decide to do this project?  Did you always know about this story?

DRD: I’m just like everyone else. I didn’t know the story either. I found out about it kind of accidentally. But once I knew the story, I had to make this documentary. I couldn’t let it go.  Just like everyone else, it was also a surprise to me that there were 17 others there.

DD: That’s incredible. You found out there were 17 other athletes.

DRD:  I didn’t know there were 17 specifically. I just saw records that there were others. I just knew there was more than Jesse Owens, but no one knew exactly how many. Then, they couldn’t get all the names right. The research led to the fact that there were 18.

August 1936-In the Olympic Stadium, Berlin, Germany: Leni Riefenstahl (on ground, third from left), Olympic cinematographer, directs filming of Archie Williams (far right) after he wins the gold medal in the 400 meter dash. Photo credit: Olympic Pride, American Prejudice LLC. 

DD: Why was this important to you?

DRD: It was just a really good thing to know that these people did something that we all benefitted from. Their stories and accomplishments shouldn’t go into obscurity. We shouldn’t let their story fade away.  It’s our cultural heritage and we should protect it.

DD: You must have had a great researcher. You shared some juicy information and highlighted some good material.

DRD:  Yeah, I did, it was me (laughter).  I did the research.

DD: Really?  How long did it take you to research this documentary?

DRD:  It took me four years to do all of the research.

DD: Where did you find most of the material?

DRD:  I found a lot of stuff when I went to Berlin. I talked to a lot of people.  I was there for about eight days.  I had to get it done.

DD: It was interesting how you also included the stories about the Jewish athletes.

DRD: It was propaganda everywhere. The whole thing was propaganda, right?

Deborah Riley Draper

DD: What was the most surprising thing you found?

DRD: Well, believe it or not, I didn’t know that Jackie Robinson’s brother, Mack Robinson, also competed in the games.  His brother won a medal in the 1936 Olympics. I had no idea. That was a shocker.  Everything I found was interesting. I just kept looking – like an investigator.

DD: Blair, why did you get involved?

BU: I got involved because of Deborah [Riley Draper].  After she told me about the project, I wanted to get involved. When you think about the nuances of how those athletes were perceived as black athletes in Nazi Germany – man, wow!  You’d think they would worry about going there. You’d think they would be worried about how they were going to be treated, or whether they would be protected. Whether or not they would even be killed.

DD: When you’re narrating something like this – how do you approach it?

BU: Just by telling the story. My approach is talking like we’re talking now. Make it conversational and exciting. It’s what we do as storytellers anyway.

DD: Your initial thoughts when Deborah (Riley Draper) brought you the project.

BU: The beauty was I came in at the end. The beauty was I was privileged to see a trailer. At that time the film wasn’t finished.  I saw about eight minutes of it. It told me everything I needed to know and in what direction she was going in.

DD: Why is this important?

BU: Wow!  The main reason is because you understand the continuity of how we got here today. How we have a black man in the White House. How we have so many of us in the NBA. At one point in time we weren’t allowed to even be on the court.  It’s important when it comes to legitimacy. We can compete. We can run. All of this led to access – access to everything like restaurants.  It led to integration in sports and in society. So there is continuity here. This is a seminal moment.  This was a major shift – and the world took notice.

DD: Is it more important for black people to see this documentary or for white people to see this documentary?

BU: It’s important for everyone to see this. That’s not just a marginalized answer.  What I think Deborah did rather smartly was to include the story of the two Jews who were also there. It was interesting to see what they went through.

DD: What is your hope for this film?

BU: My hope is that everyone sees the film. My hope is that Deborah gets the attention she deserves as a filmmaker. Also that the family members of those athletes get to see the film, the children and the children’s children.

Dr. Amy Tiemann

DD:  Dr. Tiemann, how did you come to be involved in this project?

AT: I met Deborah at a documentary pitching session.  It was the Documentary Fund in Durham.   She was pitching her story.  About 10 minutes in I was captivated. It was an easy decision.  This documentary is getting a universal reaction.

DD: Did you know about this moment in history prior to the pitching session?

AT:  Even people who knew American history didn’t know this story.  I’ve heard a lot of pitches, but this one touched me.

DD:  What is your hope for this documentary?

AT:  My hope is that it becomes a staple in every classroom. I hope it gets to the White House and to President Obama.

Olympic Pride, American Prejudice, directed by Deborah Riley Draper, is produced by Coffee Bluff Pictures (www.coffeebluffpictures).  It’s narrated by Blair Underwood, who is also an executive producer, along with Dr. Amy Tiemann and Michael A. Draper.


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