In 1936 when 18 African-American athletes participated in the Berlin Olympic Games, history forgot all except one. This is the story of the other 17.
Hi Deborah, thank you for talking to TNC. On Sunday you had your special 'Work In Progress' screening at the Berlinale, what was it like of you to be able to share this important new project at the festival?
It was so exciting as an African American female director to bring a story about 18 African Americans in Berlin in 1936 to Berlin. The film connected with the market attendees in a far deeper way than I expected. I spoke after with people from various ages and diverse countries and they all said the same thing. “This story needs to be told and it’s very powerful.”
Were there any nerves ahead of the screening?
Yes, I was very nervous to address the topic of Nazism and Aryan Supremacy in Germany.
What was the reaction you got for the film at this stage?
We have been so excited by the reactions of the work in progress screening in Germany and in the U.S. First and foremost, no one knew there were 18 African American Olympians who defied Jim Crow racism in America and faced Hitler in Germany. The audiences were excited to learn of this seminal moment in world history and that these athletes won medals and hearts in spite of the proposed boycott and the social and political context and backdrop of the 1936 Olympics. They are shocked to learn of Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes, the first ever black women to represent America in the Olympics. Overall, they could not believe this happened and they never learned about it. They wanted everyone to see it.
Tell me a little bit about Olympic Pride, American Prejudice, how did the film come about?
I was researching Valaida Snow, an African American jazz musician who was interned by the Nazis at Vestre Fængsel. She mentioned how proud she was of the African American olympians of 1936 and that she should have left Europe with them. I was shocked and wanted to learn more immediately.
Before starting this project how much did you know about the 18 African-American Olympians?
I was aware of the incredible accomplishments of Jesse Owens only.
What was it about their experiences that intrigued you so much?
The irony of their experiences intrigued me. They represented a country that regarded them as second class citizens with tremendous pride, grace and ability in a country that considered them undesirable. They broke barriers and positively advanced the role of African American in sports and as American heroes. And, they experienced a freedom and a celebrity in Germany that contradicted their expectations and their experiences at home. They were international darlings.
"I would have relished in the success of the film more and leveraged the publicity more for my personal brand."
So far what have been the most surprising aspects of their experiences at the games and returning back to the US that you've found?
I was so surprised that so many of them were invited to have dinner at the homes of the German people and that their autographs were a hot commodity during the games. People wanted their photographs. I was surprised they were never invited to the White House and not recognised for their contributions to sports, diplomacy and Civil Rights. Their collective presence in Berlin was a turning point and the integration of sports would probably take decades longer if they had not represented themselves in the manner they did.
What does it mean to have Blair Underwood connected with this project?
Blair is an incredible actor, director and producer. He is a student of black history and cares deeply about the telling of stories from the African American perspective through unique characters. Plus, his voice in the narration is incredible. He won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album Shared with Beau Bridges and Cynthia Nixon for the album for Al Gore’s "An Inconvenient Truth.”
Your first documentary Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution was a huge success, were you surprised at the response you got for this film?
Yes. I was beyond words when the New York Times Review came out and then the LA Times followed with their incredible review. The film was just mentioned again in the Feb 2016 issue of Elle as a favourite fashion documentary. Several hundred people came out during fashion week to see the film premiere in New York. Key fashion people were in the audience laughing, smiling and nodding.
What was the most important lesson you learned from your first film?
The most important lesson I learned was not to shrink as a female director. I told a fashion insider story and I am not a fashion insider. But I am a strong story teller, a fantastic researcher and I brought the story to the big screen and little screen first. And that takes courage and tenacity. Don’t let anyone discount that or you.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
I would have relished in the success of the film more and leveraged the publicity more for my personal brand. And, I would have interviewed Givenchy in person instead of over the phone.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Yes. I have a passion for storytelling and creative expression. I see the evidence throughout my childhood but I didn’t put my finger on it professionally until I was into my advertising career. I truly enjoy sitting in the director’s seat and bringing a story to life.
How much has your approach to this project been different to your first?
I have the opportunity to really push the envelope here because not only is this an untold story. The story that has been told from the African American experience is incomplete and in some ways just plan absent. So, I have partnered with organisations much earlier in the progress to connect with communities and programs that are interested in sharing the diverse American experiences with all Americans.
What would be the best advice you could offer a new filmmaker?
You don’t have to do it by yourself. Ask for help when you need it. And, begin your marketing the minute you begin the treatment.
Finally, what do you hope people will take away from this film?
The world benefited from the collective action of this unique group of 18 athletes in 1936. And, we can learn incredible lessons about tolerance and grace and courage from them as well as the power of collective action. Whether they won a medal or not, just being in Berlin in 1936 as a young African American sent a message to both sides of the Atlantic.