Pasadena athlete Mack Robinson and 17 other black Americans defied Jim Crow and Adolf Hitler in 1936, and went on to win hearts and medals at the Summer Olympic Games in Berlin that year, even when they represented a country that considered them second-class citizens and competed in a country that rolled out the red carpet in spite of what was then an undercurrent of Aryan superiority and anti-Semitism.
A new film being released August 5 tells the story of those storied days and people, the 18 black American Olympians – 16 men and two women – who were heroes for America in the Summer Olympics in Berlin, but returned home to a short-lived glory because at that time, racial segregation in most facets of American society, even in sports, was widely practiced.
The film, “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice,” has been screened at several film festivals, including the Los Angeles Film Festival and the American Black Film Festival, and opens for theatrical release on Friday, August 5 in New York City and in Santa Monica, California.
“Olympic Pride, American Prejudice,” which took four years to complete, now tells the story of the 17 other Americans, including Mack Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s elder brother. Mack Robinson placed second in the 200 meters at the U.S. Olympics Trials in 1936, earning a place on the Olympic Team. He went on to win the silver medal at the Olympics in Berlin, finishing 0.4 seconds behind Jesse Owens.
Mack Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia, in 1914. He and Jackie and his other siblings were left fatherless at an early age. Their mother, Mallie, was the sole support of the children. She performed in a variety of manual labour tasks, and moved with her children to Pasadena while the children were still young.
Mack set national junior college records in the 100 meter, 200 meter, and long jump at Pasadena Junior College. Then he placed second in the 200 meters at the United States Olympic Trials in 1936, earning himself a place on the Olympic team.
The movie’s release coincides with the 80th anniversary of the 1936 Olympics which many believed Hitler organized in Berlin as part of Nazi propaganda promoting Aryan racial superiority. The XI Olympiad played August 1 to 16 that year.
Before this documentary, much of black Americans’ participation in the 1936 Olympics was centered on Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in track and field and was the most successful athlete in that Olympics. At least two films have been made about Jesse Owens, one in 1984, and the latest, “Race,” released in February this year.
Before the concept for the documentary was made, writer-director Deborah Riley Draper herself thought Jesse Owens was the only one on the 1936 Olympic Team.
“After doing research, we discovered 17 others, including two women,” Draper tells the online TV program Black Hollywood Live Conversations. “It’s a really powerful story, because these are kids. They were on a boat for 10 days headed to Nazi Germany to represent America, where they were second-class citizens. And then when they get to Berlin, a few interesting things happen: they were able to get on the bus. They were able to get into restaurants and sit out and be served. So this really changed their perspective. And when they came home, while the stories may not have been known, you know the impact, because Mack Robinson – Jackie Robinson’s brother – was on that 1936 team. Ten years after Mack, Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier in American baseball.”
Draper, a former advertising executive, says she stumbled on the story of the 17 other Americans as she was researching on Valaida Snow, a trumpet player who was arrested while touring Denmark in 1941 and intered in a Nazi concentration camp for two years. When Snow returned, it was she who referenced the Olympians, and from her research, Draper knew about the 17 other Americans.
“We started with – I think there were 18 people, we don’t quite know their names, we have this photograph where we could see their faces,” Draper says. “So then there’s this process of investigation, finding out who they are – the accurate names, then finding the families, finding the school records, finding the university records, and going over to Germany where the records were very intact.”
Draper had to personally dig through a variety of sources, including such leading black newspapers of the day – the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, the Baltimore Afro-American, among others – and stories in Ebony as well as obituaries.
The film includes Draper’s subtitled interview with a German spectator from the 1936 Olympics.
Blair Underwood officially narrates the documentary and does double duty as executive producer. But the voices of the actual Olympians can be heard throughout the film, as well as the voices of some of their children who had to tell of the heartbreak their parents felt for having their great accomplishments largely ignored at home.
In the interview Black Hollywood Lives’ Conversations, Draper says the film tells a story that is a vital part of history and is as relevant today as it was almost 80 years ago.
“I was fascinated that the grandchildren of slaves would be able to go to Germany and represent America, and then we lose sight of the story, it disappears,” Draper says in the interview, seen on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RZ8XtbN00U. “And I thought, wow, what would happen if all of these 18 young people were able to talk to young people of today and they were able to tell stories and create a pathway for the future, so that this next generation can understand what it feels like to break down stereotypes, what it feels like to kick in doors and do it in a way that’s really smart, really graceful, and a way that they can’t take it from you? These stories may be lost, but their impact lives forever. And I’m going to make sure that the story lives forever, too.
“Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” opens at the Monica Film Center, 1332 2nd Street in Santa Monica, and plans to expand to 10 other cities in September.
For more information on schedules, keep monitoring www.1936olympicsmovie.com.