Most of us have heard the stories of American folklore: how George chopped down the cherry tree, how “”Dan’l Boone kilt a bar,” and how Jesse Owens essentially thumbed his nose at Adolph Hitler at the 1936 Olympics disproving Nazi notions of Aryan supremacy. From the tales of Paul Bunyan’s blue ox Babe to Babe Ruth: some stories are truth, some are myth, and many fall somewhere in-between.
In the case of Jesse Owens, however, the popular mythology doesn’t tell half the story – one-eighteenth, more like.
To be sure, Owens’ superiority and four gold medals embodied American’s celebration of success, but 17 other African-Americans mustered the same courage and determination – and in many similar glory – as Owens.
A new documentary film, “Olympic Price, American Prejudice,” captures the more inclusive story of all 18 athletes of color, including two African-American women, who set out for an uncertain and sobering setting of an Olympics steeped in dark political import that overshadowed mere sport. Now, 80 years after these athletes steamed off for Berlin, their story has sailed through Chapel Hill for a sold-out North Carolina premiere last Monday at the Silverspot Cinemas at University Place and public shows throughout this past weekend.
“We had a world premiere at the LA Film Festival, Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival, and we were also at the Chicago and St. Louis Film Festivals,” film writer and director Deborah Riley Draper said. “But this is the North Carolina premier, and our executive producer is Dr. Amy Tiemann, North Carolina entrepreneur and filmmaker, who set it up so that North Carolina could have the weekend run right here in Chapel Hill.”
“The fact that everybody doesn’t know about it is part of the story,” said Tiemann, the founder and president of Chapel Hill’s Spark Productions. “America couldn’t quite handle the story of 18 black heroic athletes. It’s not a coincidence that this fuller story was left out.”
Luke Rowe, senior vice president for business development and franchise support at Fleet Feet Sports’ corporate offices in Carrboro, was on hand for the premiere and was highly impressed with both the film and the premiere.
“I walked in here and I was very impressed,” he said. “I love history, I love movies, and I have a slight connection with the Olympics, but the ability to bring this kind of history into Chapel Hill is a great thing.”
“Also, this is real history – not some made-up or (Hollywood) story,” Rowe added. “I’d heard of some of these folks in addition to Jesse (Owens), of course, but here are people representing a country that treated them like they hated them.”
Monday evening began with a red carpet reception at Silverspot Cinema, followed by introductions of the filmmakers in the theater itself, and finishing with a question-and-answer session.
Narrated by actor Blair Underwood, the film “explores the experiences of 18 African-American Olympians who defied Jim Crow and Adolf Hitler to win hearts and medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin,” the film website (www.1936olympicsmovie.com) said. “The film follows 16 men and two women before, during, and after their heroic turn at the Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. They represented a country that considered them second-class citizens and competed in a country that rolled out the red carpet in spite of an undercurrent of Aryan superiority and anti-Semitism.”
Tiemann said the general response across the country has been phenomenal.
“I’ve had a lot of projects and ideas from books to activism to political campaigns that I’ve pitched,” she said. But ... this is the one where everyone has said, ‘I want to see this; I want to know the story.’ People say, ‘That’s incredible—why did I not know this?’”
The fact that the film brings to light issues of race which are still poignant 80 years after the 1936 games only makes the film more timely, said Draper, an Atlanta resident who also wrote and directed the award-winning documentary “Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution.”
“It’s an incredible story of 18 courageous people who did something critically important in history – in civil rights history, in sports history, and in the history of pre-World War II,” she said. “It faded into obscurity. No one knew. Jesse Owens became this big hero, and he was a great athlete, but we wanted to tell the complete story around that entire Olympics: the whole story has been left out.”
“It’s been interesting to see how interest has developed over time,” Tiemann said. “There have been more and more resonances. We wonder how Hitler came to power? He did not come suddenly; he came showing everyone exactly the kind of person he was, but people still signed on for that.”
Tiemann emphasized the courage it took for African-American athletes simply to board the boat to Europe.
“Imagine you have a black daughter that you’re going to put on a steamship for a two-week trip to Nazi Germany in 1936 before cellphones or email,” she said. “Just to have the faith to get on that boat was huge.”
“This story ... is as relevant today as it was almost 80 years ago,” the film website contended.
“Yes, especially in the context of what we’re dealing with today,” Rowe agreed. “With the Black Lives Matter movement and protests, here are people going through things we can’t even fathom.”
Draper pointed out that the film also touches upon the anti-Semitism rampant in Germany at the time.
“The film talks not only about the Africa-American perspective but also from the Jewish perspective,” Draper stressed. “It’s a holistic look at bias.”
“There’s been a lot of really organic cross-cultural interest from the Jewish community,” Tiemann said. “We’re looking at anti-Semitism and also Jim Crow racism, and we’re not afraid to say that there were no winners with either of those.”
Silverspot added shows this past weekend to accommodate interested filmgoers, and hopes were that, given the successful run here in Chapel Hill, Silverspot would host a run at its location in Naples, Fla., as well.
Those unable to attend the Chapel Hill shows could order a DVD for $19.99 through iTunes or Amazon. Producers encouraged schools and universities, community centers and churches to screen the film and arrange for an educational license by emailing info@coffeebluffpictures.
Next up for Draper is award season.
“We’re just making sure we have Oscar (Academy Awards) qualification,” she said. “We’ve had theatrical releases in New York and Los Angeles, and we’ve sent in everything to the Academy, and we hope to make the short list.”
Draper said the “short list” of selected films will be released soon, and nominations would come out next January.
If the Academy voters’ response is as enthusiastic as was the filmgoers’ in Chapel Hill, Ms. Draper may want to reserve a space on her mantle.
Those unable to attend the Chapel Hill shows can order a DVD for $19.99 through iTunes or Amazon. Those wanting to screen the film for audiences can secure an educational license by emailing info@coffeebluffpictures.