It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
2016 marks the 80th anniversary of the 1936 Berlin Games. Adolf Hitler saw Germany-set games as a means of promoting the supposed superiority of his country’s White athletes. Hitler’s intentions were usurped by an African-American runner named Jesse Owens, whose undeniable prowess on the track earned him four Olympic gold medals. Of the Americans who participated in 1936, Owens’ story stood out not just for his victories, but for the ironies that accompanied it: Here was a man representing a country that thought him inferior to Whites competing in another country that held the same thought, yet treated him better because he was an Olympian.
When the story of the 1936 Olympics is told, Owens stands out because, as the saying goes, the spoils are bestowed upon the victor. Yet, the standard Owens narrative I was fed during numerous “Black History Month” Februarys in my scholastic career never mentioned that Owens was not the only person of color to participate in Berlin. In fact, 17 other African-Americans (15 men and 2 women) accompanied Owens, some in his field of expertise, others in areas such as boxing and weightlifting. Deborah Riley Draper’s documentary, "Olympic Pride, American Prejudice," tells the story of these unsung competitors, many of whom won medals of their own. It opens just in time for 2016’s own Olympic games, and is well worth the time and money.
“Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” is the second 2016 release to cover the Berlin games. Back in February, Stephen Hopkins’ bland, tone deaf Jesse Owens biopic, “Race” opened to lukewarm reviews and respectable box office. The difference between the two films is blatantly exposed by their titles and their respective genres: “Race” is a cutesy play on words denoting both Jesse Owens’ athletic prowess and his color. As a result, the audience is free to choose which meaning makes them more comfortable. By comparison, Draper’s title is fearlessly blunt. There’s only one way to interpret it, and as a documentary, “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” is freed from the crowd-pleasing constraints imposed on the biopic genre.
Despite being well-acted and somewhat entertaining, two problems plagued Hopkins’ biopic. “Race” suffered from Hollywood’s inability to tell a Black story without involving a White character as audience stand-in, making propaganda documentarian Leni Riefenstahl into an almost bigger hero than Owens. The film also undercut the harsh realities of Owens’ story, muting the more sinister aspects of Avery Brundage’s role in the proceedings while also providing moments of manufactured hope that rang hollow and false. For example, both Draper and Hopkins inform the viewer that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt neither met with Owens, nor did he publicly congratulate him. But only Draper’s film tells you the offensive reason why. Additionally, both films mention that Owens was forced to enter the event honoring him using the back entrance of the Waldorf-Astoria, but “Race” tacks on an unconvincing moment of post-racial harmony to soften the blow.