They were elite athletes without a home, facing Jim Crow discrimination in the U.S. and competing at the Olympics in the shadows of Nazi Germany. As black members of Team USA at the 1936 Games, they have come to be seen as examples of courage and perseverance at time of racism and bigotry.
Archie Williams, who won the men’s 400-meter race, later became a pilot instructor at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Ralph Metcalfe, who took second behind Jesse Owens in the 100-meter dash, went on to serve Illinois as a Congressman.
“Their history and their impact is there,” Deborah Riley Draper said, “but their story faded into obscurity.”
Riley Draper is attempting to rekindle interest in their stories through “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice,” a documentary released Friday that is currently screening at the local Laemmle theater ahead of viewings across the nation.
The film arrives at the Monica Film Center in Santa Monica eight decades after the Olympics in Berlin and will be shown as audiences around the world tune in to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. And the release comes as Santa Monica considers the possibility of hosting beach volleyball at the 2024 Olympics, which advocates are currently campaigning to bring to Los Angeles.
Riley Draper regularly spent time in town during her previous career in advertising, whether she was eating at local restaurants, staying at local hotels or riding rental bikes around the city. And she saw Santa Monica as an ideal location to release her latest film.
“It’s really progressive,” the director said, “and it’s a place that I think would appreciate not just the art of the film, but the history of the film and the lesson that the film talks about — understanding bias and how to accept people for who they are. I thought Santa Monica would be a great place that would welcome me and the film.”
Riley Draper learned about the 18 athletes while doing research on Valaida Snow, a jazz musician who was briefly held by the Nazis during World War II. There was Cornelius Johnson, who grew up in Southern California; James LuValle, a standout track athlete at UCLA; and Jackie Robinson’s older brother, Mack, an accomplished runner and jumper who attended what is now Pasadena City College.
“It’s an incredible part of the rich history that Southern California has played and continues to play in holding onto the Olympic ideal,” Riley Draper said. “What courage and what perseverance it must take to combat both Jim Crow and Aryan supremacy and still make it to the medal stand. That courage is something we can all learn from. It’s something to be very proud of, to have that heart and perseverance even when your country isn’t representing you.”
Riley Draper hopes the film will resonate with audiences as high-profile police shootings of unarmed black citizens fuel ongoing debates over race relations in the U.S., where racism was rampant at the time of Hitler’s Olympics.
Riley Draper said documentary filmmaking has given her the opportunity to use her work as a way to educate viewers about new subjects and impact how they see the world. She sees sports as a vehicle for conversations on race, tolerance and acceptance.
“When the gun goes off, we suspend racism and intolerance, and it just becomes the pure speed of who’s the fastest,” she said. “That suspension when we’re cheering, that’s something we should do all the time. And that’s what we get to talk about.
“This is about, ‘How do we continue to move forward so, 80 years from now, we don’t have to have that discussion over and over again?’”