Blair Underwood Narrates Olympic Pride, American Prejudice
In a time where our freedom of speech and civil liberties are challenged by the constraints of government control and social injustices, the thin line between politics and arts has dissipated.
The voices of liberty and justice have always found a way through visual, literary, musical and theatrical presentations.
The unspoken stories of our ancestors through their struggles and growth have lain dormant for decades, sometimes centuries, until it raises the curiosity of one mind and they try to bring them forth.
Deborah Riley Draper, a former advertising executive, is the writer and director of Olympic Pride, American Prejudice. Draper’s company, Coffee Bluff Pictures, is a film production company whose work includes Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution. This latest undertaking has been a labor of love for the past three years, which has now come down to the final cut stage.
Explaining her vision, Draper says, “Eighteen African Americans in the opening Olympic ceremonies in Nazi Germany in 1936 was a beautiful site in the footage. The world could see them; the world could see ‘us’. That meant possibilities and that meant the future.”
The film is co-executive produced and narrated by long-time veteran actor Blair Underwood and the Chicago Defender had a chance to discuss in detail his involvement and the importance of preserving our history.
“I came on board and told Deborah that I was blown away by this story. I would support her any way I could to help tell the story and help get the word out there in any way shape, or form. So, we’re co-executive producers together in the end. I’m excited about it,” said Underwood. “I want to give her all of the credit.”
As a part of the DuSable Museum of African American History’s Black History month series, they partnered with the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center to present a “work-in-progress” screening of Olympic Pride, American Prejudice a few weeks ago.
Showing the film to a nearly packed theater in an environment that showcases the rich history of African American culture was a great setting for both Draper and Underwood.
“It’s absolutely critical that we preserve our history, our story, our legacy, our heritage. That’s why it was appropriate that we did the screening at the DuSable Museum,” Underwood said. “We never let anyone else define us as a culture. We’re not a monolithic culture; we’re so varied and diverse. There’s a huge canvas to paint upon when we start reflecting on our history that hasn’t been touched.”
Born in Tacoma, Washington, the son of U.S. Army Colonel, Underwood moved around to several military bases throughout the States and Germany growing up. He went on to attend Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in Pittsburgh, following his older brother to join Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity.
Upon touching down in New York to pursue a professional acting career, he was cast the same week in his first feature film, Krush Groove, and in his debut appearance on The Cosby Show.
His nonstop career has been filled with roles between television and film features, including One Life to Live, L.A. Law, Set It off, Deep Impact, Sex in the City, Ironside (2015), and In Treatment, for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 2009 Golden Globe Awards.
He stays on the radar of filmmakers and producers. So it’s projects such as Olympic Pride, American Prejudice that resonate with Underwood, as he wants to share information with people, especially students, that he feels may not otherwise receive this kind of history lesson.
“We just touch upon the surface when it comes to what’s being taught in our schools, and what is relayed forward. So, this is just one of millions of stories that are being uncovered that’s been there and happened,” Underwood explained.
Making this film took a strenuous commitment with researching the athletes and reaching out to German officials. Although it was a turbulent time in the country’s history, Draper found their cooperation very generous in her fact finding.
Dealing with a similar process of research for her first documentary, Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution, she found that Germans are more open to share information during a dark time in their history.
“My first film required the same process in the same manner. I shot in France and in the States. This one I shot in Germany and the States. They were very similar in the locations and the tremendous amount of archival research involved,” says Draper. “Finding footage and photos and tracking down participants who were there. The witnesses, the journalists, the spectators, very similar.
“The difference was France in 1973 versus Nazi Germany in 1936, eighty years ago. Trying to get into the German archives and figure out who was still alive in Berlin that witnessed these African-American athletes. Also, who was still alive in America as well.”
Unfortunately, none of the 18 Black athletes are still living. However, five of their families that reside in Chicago attended the VIP screening here.
That the problems the 18 Black athletes faced during the 1936 Olympics were more hostile back home in the United States than in Nazi-ruled Germany is a telltale sign of the deep rooted wounds that still affect us to this day.
In writing and researching this documentary, Draper discovered a disconnect between Germany’s accountability of the Nazi period and America’s Jim Crow racism.
She said, “The Germans struggle to deal with the Third Reich the way Americans struggle to deal with Jim Crow. They are working to try to put these photos and footage in public domain so that people can see it, compared to what we know about Jim Crow. The lynching, the police brutality and segregation. We know more about Nazis than we know about lynchings. I think our information is more suppressed.”
Messages For Youth
Underwood said he and his wife, Desiree, who are proud parents of two sons and one daughter, sometimes find themselves discussing race relations with their children.
“What I say to my sons, 19 and 14, and my daughter, 17, is that you can never be afraid to speak truth to power. You have that power. In this day and age, where we have technology and history and the laws on our side, you don’t let anyone demean or diminish you. If you understand that you have that power, you understand you have a system to fight.”
When it comes to addressing the issues of police brutality and growing up as an African-American male, Underwood shares a similar message with his sons.
“My message to my boys is, understand you are my sons that are gorgeous and wonderful and brilliant, but to many people to this world you are a threat,” Underwood said
“What they see is a threatening figure as a Black man. With knowledge you have power, so when you understand that, you can carry yourself in a different way. If you’re disrespected, you know you have something to fight for and don’t be afraid to speak on that.”
The work of Olympic Pride, American Prejudice is a testament to the gifted athletes that represented not just their race, but their country. It is a mantra that Blair Underwood continues to live by every day.
“Those whom you allow to define you, will confine you,” he said. “So I don’t let people define me. I’m a son of God. I’m a husband. I’m a father. I’m a son. I’m a brother. My race is not everything I am; it’s a part of who I am.”