History is not neat and tidy, however much we wish it could be, and “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” is more than adept at getting to the truth about perhaps the most mythologized event of the modern Olympic movement.
That would be the story that presents track and field star Jesse Owens as the lone African American standing up to Adolf Hitler and the racist Nazi regime at the 1936 Olympics, winning four gold medals and causing der Führer to storm out of the Berlin stadium in a huff.
Yes, Owens did win those four medals, but not only did Hitler leave after a non-Owens event, the American star was not alone but rather one of 18 black athletes on the U.S. squad in Germany. And as this even-handed but emotional documentary shows, their experience both during and after Berlin was not what might be expected.
“Olympic Pride” is written and directed by Deborah Riley Draper, whose last doc, “Versailles 73: American Runway Revolution” dealt with the importance of black models in a 1973 high-fashion showdown in France.
A believer in research, Draper has made up for the fact that none of the athletes in question is still alive. She’s tracked down their families, audio interviews they’d given, newsreels that covered them and newspaper stories that talked about their experiences.
More than that, she has interviewed sources in Germany, key American sports figures like Harry Edwards and Anita DeFrantz, and former Olympians like 2004 gold medalist and UCLA assistant track coach Joanna Hayes, who says of the 1936 group that as proud as she is of her own accomplishment, “there is something so special about what they did and who they did it in front of.”
One of the goals of “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” is to illustrate the context of the 1936 Olympics, pointing out for instance that at that point in time most of their fellow citizens did not consider African Americans people with equal rights.
Things in Germany were even worse, with Nazi laws officially stripping Jews and other non-Aryans of their citizenship. It was so bad that the question of whether American Jews and blacks should even go to Berlin at all was a hotly debated topic in the run-up to the games.
There is something so special about what they did and who they did it in front of.
While Olympic movement zealots like Avery Brundage were against a boycott, luminaries like New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia were for it on moral grounds. Taking a different tack, the black press thought African Americans should participate in the games to disprove the myth of white supremacy.
The movement for a boycott was narrowly voted down, and the final U.S. team had 18 black athletes on it, including 10 men and two women on the critical track and field squad.
Acutely conscious of world public opinion about their racial laws, the Nazi regime took a number of cosmetic steps, including pressuring German Jewish high jumper Gretel Bergmann (now 102 and interviewed on camera) to move back to Germany from her refuge in Britain so that her presence on the team could be trumpeted.
The Nazis also decided to temporarily scrub Berlin clean of prejudice. No anti-Jewish posters were visible, only positive stories were allowed in the press, and the African American athletes were treated with a degree of equality unknown in the U.S.
The villains of “Olympic Pride” are not so much the Germans, but unnamed members of the American coaching staff who made a number of apparently racist moves. Two black boxers were sent home with the spurious excuse of homesickness, track favorite Louise Stokes was scratched, as were two Jews with a chance to win gold medals, including sprinter Marty Glickman (who later became a pioneering radio broadcaster).
Still, the African Americans on the U.S. team did remarkably well, winning a total of eight gold, four silver and two bronze medals and accounting for just about half of the American squad’s total points. These included a gold and a silver for Ralph Metcalfe, who went on to become a U.S. congressman, and a silver for Mack Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s older brother.
Still, when the athletes came back home, prejudice reasserted itself. There were few job opportunities, Franklin D. Roosevelt reportedly wouldn’t shake hands with them out of fear of alienating Southern voters, and even Jesse Owens was reduced to taking on publicity stunts like a race against a horse.
“Sports is supposed to be a level playing field,” says NBA star and former Olympian Isiah Thomas. “These athletes tried to bring that home, to show how society should be.” It didn’t work out that way.
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 19 minutes.
Playing Laemmle’s Monica, Santa Monica.