The 1936 Olympics stand as a testament to the triumph of sportsmanship over hatred, with four-time gold medalist Jesse Owens famously at the front of the pack in Berlin. But what about that year’s seventeen other African-American Olympians? Olympic Pride, American Prejudice shines the spotlight on those whom time has forgotten.
Director Deborah Riley Draper gives voice to those athletes through footage of the 1936 games as well as interviews with their families and other medal winners like Carl Lewis and Joanna Hayes. You get a feel for life on the Olympic circuit — taking a ship to Berlin, training with competitors, entering a country engulfed by Aryan supremacy — at a time when lynchings were common in the States. The announcer in a vintage newsreel exclaims as sprinter Archie Williams rounds the track during his gold-medal race, “That negro is dangerous!”
Of the eighteen African Americans on the U.S. team, only two were women, and just one of them actually competed in the games, making for two of the doc’s most riveting and tragic threads. These stories aren’t surprising, but that doesn’t mean they’re not revealing. With the Rio games on the horizon and racial tension ever mounting in the U.S., this doc stands as a vital reminder of the power of rising above it all on the world stage.
Riley doesn’t portray this fellowship of black athletes as victims, but as pioneers proving themselves against white supremacy behind enemy lines. And yet this doc also pulls them back down to earth as mere men and women competing against the odds, human to human.
Olympic Pride, American Prejudice
Directed by Deborah Riley Draper
Coffee Bluff Pictures
Opens August 5, Cinema Village
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 3, 2016