Deborah Riley Draper’s documentary Olympic Pride, American Prejudice will make its debut on Saturday June 4th at the Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF). This powerful documentary revolves around the untold story of 18 Black Olympians (16 men and 2 women) as they venture to the 1936 Summer Games in Nazi Germany during a time when Adolf Hitler ruled the country. History has placed Jesse Owens on his own pedestal, and Draper’s debut feature sheds light on the work of 17 other Black athletes and their journey from America’s attempted boycott of the ’36 Olympics, to the trials, competition and the athletes’ unceremonious return home. The courage and success of these men and women sparked pride among the African American community, as they defied both the institutional racism of Jim Crow America and the Nazi doctrine of Aryan supremacy. Their camaraderie and collective action was a critical step towards the Civil Rights Movement.
Draper is a former advertising executive who translated her love for storytelling into a full-fledged filmmaking career. She is known for engaging audiences with socially compelling content. Her first film, Versailles ’73: An American Runway Revolution, revolved around the legendary fashion event held inside the Palace of Versailles, France, in November 1973.
HBR Media had the pleasure of speaking with Draper about her latest film Olympic Pride, American Prejudice. Enjoy the below interview and be sure to check out this powerful film this weekend at the LA Film Festival.
HBR: How did you discover this powerful story?
Draper: I was in the process of doing some research and there was a mention of African-Americans at the 1936 Olympics. I started looking for evidence of these athletes because history tells us that Jesse Owens was the only African American to compete at the 1936 Olympics. Through research, I realized that there was an entire group of 18 intelligent and elite athletes that represented America in 1936 in Nazi Germany. These athletes represented America in the face of Jim Crow and Adolf Hitler, and they were only 18 and 19-year-olds. I was surprised at the fact that I never heard this story so between shock and the thrill of newfound information, a film was born.
HBR: When discussing the African-American presence during the 1936 Olympics, we hear mainly of Jesse Owens. Why do you think that the story about the other 17 athletes has yet to be told until now?
Draper: The reason that we have only heard about Jesse Owens is due to propaganda. Germans had their propaganda and so did the Americans. When you look at 1936 and all the socio-political factors that impacted the decisions that politicians, and the media needed to make at the time, leveraging only one African American hero against the Nazis versus many was more impactful. Highlighting and publically praising 18 triumphant African Americans went against Jim Crow tradition and policies in the south. Southern papers and papers across the nation weren’t ready to publish major stories about African Americans accomplishing great things. When you’re talking about one, you’re dealing in the space of an anomaly; however, when you’re dealing with 18, you have to reconsider and reframe how you engage with African Americans and how you treat people. That was too much of an undertaking during this time period.
HBR: It’s interesting that African American athletes, who experienced racism in their own country, were able to co-exist in Berlin, a country that was run by Adolf Hitler at the time. In your opinion, what impact did these 18 athletes have on the Olympic Games, and what impact did they have on the world in terms of how race was viewed globally?
Draper: These 18 athletes were the first international superstars of color. They were written about in every paper across the world, and if Twitter existed during this time, they would have been trending. The only country that didn’t recognize these athletes as superstars across the world was America. Their accomplishments caused people across the globe to adjust their perspective regarding the role of African Americans in sports. If these barriers were not broken in the 30’s, what we know about sports in the 40s, wouldn’t have happened because the ground work would not have been laid. All that we harvested in the 40’s and 50’s would have happened more towards the 60’s and 70’s, and the road to racial equality in America would have been pushed back by 10-15 years.
These trailblazers are unsung heroes when it comes to sports because they integrated not just amateur sports, but collegiate sports as well. They made coaches reconsider having all white teams and all white leagues. At that time, there was the gentleman’s agreement between the FCC and the ACC that banned integration in sports; however, these athletes were so great that coaches started to consider recruiting black athletes for their collegiate teams.
HBR: Throughout the course of this film, are there any athletes that serve as the focal point of the story?
Draper: The film will focus on Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett because they are the two African American women whose stories are forgotten. For whatever reason, they are left out of the 1936 story every time someone speaks about it, yet they made history by becoming the first two African American women to ever represent the United States in the Olympics. Young Louise Stokes was a high school student who had the courage to get on a boat to sail to Nazi Germany to compete for a country that she couldn’t vote in once she turned 18. These women are omitted from films, magazines, and conversation, so it was really important to me as an African American woman to focus on these two heroic women who broke so many barriers. They deserve to be included in history, and we wanted to make sure that we were able to shine a light on their accomplishments.
HBR: With this being an Olympic year, what do you want your audience and the world to take away after seeing your film?
Draper: First I would like our audience to understand the experience of these athletes and how their role not only impacted sports history, but also the modern day civil rights movement. There are so many unsung heroes that we don’t know about. It’s so important to research history to find out how singular individuals impacted the world that we live in today.
HBR: We have a large audience of young people who have goals of following your footsteps and creating meaningful and impactful content. What advice would you give to these aspiring filmmakers and content creators?
Draper: Be incredibly stubborn and really fight to tell the story that you want. Fight to have your voices heard. If you’re a new filmmaker or a first time director, people will tell you how hard it is, and it can be discouraging. Hear it, understand it, make preparations for it, but don’t be deterred by it.
HBR: Is there anything else that you would like to share with the audience about the film and about the process?
Draper: The film is a documentary, but we hope that people will watch and enjoy the drama. There is a lot of humor in the film because it’s essentially about a bunch of kids who went to Germany during the time of Hitler, and they had an incredible experience. We can take their experiences and apply them to our own lives about dealing with adversity and dealing with setbacks and turn lemons into lemonade.
Screening Time/Date: June 4th @ 1:10pm & June 6th @ 4:05pm Tickets can be found HERE