In 1932, Tydie Pickett and Louise Stokes boarded a train to Los Angeles, where they were set to be the first African-American women to compete in the Olympic Games. They were in the sleeping car when one of their teammates woke them up by drenching them in a bucket of ice water. The culprit in this hostile racial assault? None other than Babe Didrikson, the golf, basketball, and track-and-field paragon who helped to bust down the barriers for women athletes. Didrikson has a heroic place in sports history, so it’s enraging and eye-opening to learn, in the new documentary “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice,” that even an athlete of her status and liberating power didn’t believe in a level playing field. The movie is about how four years later, the 1936 Olympic Games helped to sweep that attitude into the dustbin of history.
The 1936 Olympics remain one of the most iconic of the 20th century. They took place in Berlin, three years after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, and they have often been celebrated as a mythic showdown of global racial politics in which the German athletes, viewed by Hitler as symbols of his reborn Aryan nation, faced off against the Americans, who embodied the dream of racial integration that Hitler feared and loathed. That ideal, of course, was far from being a reality in the United States. Nevertheless, the American Olympic team was no mirage. On the world stage, within the rule-bound arena of athletic competition, a vision of equality — and even harmony — was put forth as a rehearsal for the integrated society to come.
For Americans, the 1936 Games are inextricably linked to one name: Jesse Owens, the track-and-field genius with the easygoing movie-star grin who literally ran like the wind. He won four gold medals in Berlin, but his saga has all but obliterated that of the other African-Americans who competed and triumphed there. “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” reclaims the story of those 17 men and women: trailblazers who kicked open the door to a new society as much as Jackie Robinson did when he debuted on the Brooklyn Dodgers playing field 11 years later. (One of the 17 was, in fact, Robinson’s older brother, Mack Robinson.) The deplorable reason that the Olympics needed to come first is that baseball was considered a “contact sport,” and no touching between blacks and whites was allowed. The nature of track and field competition didn’t violate that taboo. (One assumes that boxing was okay because hitting didn’t qualify as touching.)
As a documentary, “Olympic Pride” is a little on the staid side. The film’s writer-producer-director, Deborah Riley Draper, works in a variation on the Ken Burns style, with slow zooms in and out of photographs, which is fine (and understandable), though she doesn’t necessarily share Burns’ flair for the telling anecdote. Yet she does an absorbing job of capturing a historical moment that was even more fraught than it’s generally imagined to be.
When the 1936 Olympics were on the horizon, there were powerful movements within the U.S. to boycott them. The argument was that Hitler was staging the Games as a propaganda coup — which, of course, he was. He originally had no interest in the Olympics, and was finally convinced to host them by Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi filmmaker who saw that the Games would be her filmmaking chance of a lifetime. The boycott nearly took hold (the deciding vote by the A.A.U. was 58-56 in favor of attending), but part of what nudged the Americans to go forward was the perception that Hitler’s propaganda could be fought with U.S. propaganda: an advertisement for American might and diversity (though no one used a word like that at the time). Shortly before the Olympics, Joe Louis, then the greatest boxer in the world, made the mistake of falling down on his training and phoning in his bout with the past-his-prime German fighter Max Schmelling. Louis lost, setting up the Olympics as an even more dramatic summit of symbolic combat.
The 18 African-American athletes who attended, out of a grand total of 400 competitors on the U.S. team, became known as “the black eagles,” and Draper chronicles every step of their journey, from their 10-day trip to Europe on an ocean liner to their arrival in Berlin (where Owens, already a star, was confronted by adoring German girls who tried to scissor off pieces of his clothing) to their ironically serene stay in the Olympic Village, a place so scrupulously monitored that it became a far more utopian zone than the Jim Crow world they’d temporarily left behind. Draper paints affecting thumbnail portraits of athletes like Ralph Metcalfe, a slightly older sprinter who became a role model for Owens, and Howell King, a boxer who, during the voyage over to Europe, was forced, for no good reason, to do his qualifying bout a second time.
It says something about the kind of movie “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” is that only 15 minutes of the 79-minute film is devoted to the actual competition at the Olympics. The 18 African-Americans scored a good half of the Olympic points that the entire American team did, gathering up an amazing total of eight gold medals. Yet this isn’t a “rousing” sports doc; it’s a tale of triumph that, at every step, masked injustice. Overnight, the black athletes shifted the image of America, but once the Olympics were over none of them received an invitation to the White House, because FDR feared that a public meeting with any of them would alienate too many voters. (Owens wound up hiring himself out for circus-like exhibitions in which he would outrun horses.) Racism still ruled. Yet the 1936 Olympics was an essential turning point in melting it down, and it’s gratifying to know every one of the people who made up that fiery force.