For Deborah Riley Draper, the Savannah Film Festival was more than a screening—it was also a homecoming.
By Ariel Felton
This Savannah native took a quick break from the screenings to talk about American heroes, movie-making and the inspiration behind her film “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice,” a documentary about the 18 African-American athletes who “defied Jim Crow and Adolf Hitler to win hearts and medals” at the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936.
You’re a Savannah girl originally, but now you live in Atlanta. What do you miss most about the 912?
Food and the beach. I miss Tybee Island and all of my family’s cooking!
If you were in Savannah only on vacation, and you didn’t have interviews and films to see — how would you spend a perfect Saturday in Savannah?
My perfect day would be a little bit of antiquing, a little bit of the beach and a whole lot of deviled crab and shrimp. And if I’ve had too much to eat, maybe a walk around Forsyth to take some pictures.
Did you get to see any films while you were here for the 19th Annual Savannah Film Festival? Any favorites?
I saw “Moonlight” and it was absolutely brilliant. It was visually beautiful and romantic, but at the same time, it was clever in the way it takes the audience there. The Q&A after the film was just incredible, too!
“Most people still think Jesse Owens was the sole African-American on [the American] team.”
There are plenty of unrecognized American heroes. What was it about this story that made you want to tell it?
For one, this was such an incredibly rich and interesting period of history. Right after the depression right and right before the Second World War, you have 18 African-Americans traveling to Europe as part of the American team, yet they are not recognized as full Americans. The complexities, ironies and the paradoxes of the story were already so engaging. Add to that the fact that most people still think Jesse Owens was the sole African-American on that team, really made me think ‘Wow, this is important.’ I wanted to explore the impact these men and women had on race relations, the struggle to equality and the integration of sports.
Your film spurred the recognition of these men and women at the White House by President Obama. Do you remember where you were when you heard the news and what that felt like?
I was actually sitting in my office and received a call from the CMO of Procter and Gamble, saying that after 80 years of these athletes not being recognized, we could rectify that by taking their families to the White House and have them recognized by President Obama and Team USA. My knees were weak!
How did the family members react to this news?
They were in tears. They seemed so inspired by the fact that we considered their family members heroes, and that a group of filmmakers would go to the mat to see their family members recognized. After the White House, we took them to the National Portrait Gallery where they got to view the film. It was emotional all again for them to see footage of their families in Nazi Germany with swastikas over their heads.
What was it like meeting the President and First Lady Michelle Obama?
I actually got the chance to attend the White House Christmas party beforehand. Michelle is stunning in person, and the President was charismatic, smart and gracious. They are absolutely two perfect individuals.
This movie is really about a group of very courageous men and women. When is the last time you found yourself in need of courage?
The day I embarked upon this film! (laughs) It took a lot of courage to get over the fear of not being able to do right by people who really did right by us. I needed courage to really dig in there and get this story that had been buried for 80 years. And not only did I need courage, I needed persistence to get to the bottom of it. Then when the film was done I needed the courage to make sure people saw it, to get out there and say “This is something people need to see.”
Fill in the blank. If BLANK were an Olympic sport, I’d be a gold medalist.
Shopping! That was easy — I’m really good at shopping.
“I feel like we have a responsibility to…craft authentic and accurate stories that give a full portrayal of who we are as a people.”
American history is complicated in many ways, how can we make the telling, and the understanding, easier?
As African-American filmmakers I feel like we have a responsibility to not just craft stories, but to craft authentic and accurate stories that give a full portrayal of who we are as a people. Those films create empathy that will eventually lead to a better understanding. Films that cover the range and diversity of our roles and contributions—whether good, bad or mediocre—help us to be purposefully woven into the tapestry of america and that’s where we need to be.
What’s next for you as a director or producer? Any major projects in the works?
There is a historical feature that I will be writing and directing and I’m so thrilled. I can’t release all the details yet, but it’s another complicated tale with African-American characters, and how we impact the landscape as changes in front of us.
Missed Draper’s film at the film festival? No worries! “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” is currently on pre-order in Amazon and iTunes. Click here to learn more.