Released online during June 2020 in the UK and Australia (where it was in cinemas in 2019), The Australian Dream was broadcast by the BBC and is now available on iPlayer for “11 months”. I recommend this documentary for any audience but especially for any sports fans during this period of ‘Black Lives Matter’. Having said that, I recognise that there are aspects of what the BBC blurb describes as an “inspirational story” that might not be understood in some cultures. I’ve read at least one prestigious reviewer in the US who didn’t ‘get’ aspects of the film.
Adam Goodes is an Indigenous Australian who became not only a major star in his sport, but also the holder of the ‘Australian of the Year’ Award in 2014. However, the casual racism that continues to plague Australian social and public life and Goodes’ own discovery about his family background and the history of his indigenous community eventually meant that he retired as a football player at least a couple of years earlier than he might have expected. His story is indeed inspirational, not only in how he became a great player but also in how he responded to both the praise and the racial abuse of football fans and social commentators.
Australia is a passionate sports nation, arguably one of the most passionate in the world. Australians are generally good at sports and they support local and national teams in large numbers both in the stadiums and on TV and on social media. There are four types of ‘football’ played professionally. The most watched and the wealthiest is what is colloquially known as ‘Aussie rules’ or ‘footy’ with a major competition, the AFL (Australian Football league), a competition of 18 teams attracting some of the world’s biggest crowds to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (the MCG) for league championship finals. ‘Aussie Rules’ has some similarities with Gaelic Football in Ireland but indigenous Australians have also claimed that a similar kind of game was played before the Europeans arrived. Australia also has Rugby League, Rugby Union and Association Football – ‘soccer’ in the US – but none of these has the playing and spectatorship base of the AFL.
This documentary is one of two competing titles, both released in 2019. I haven’t seen The Final Quarter but it is available online in the UK via iTunes. The Final Quarter uses only archive material to tell its story and it provides educational support materials (but only in Australia – see the official website). The Australian Dream does feature Adam Goodes himself and he is, in every way, the ‘star’ of the documentary. The film is written by the Indigenous Australian journalist Stan Grant, a distinguished figure as journalist and news anchor in Australia. He appears at various points in the film. The director is Daniel Gordon, the British documentarist who specialises in sports stories who I remember as the director of The Game of Their Lives (2002) about the North Korean national football team who competed in the World Cup Finals in England and gained many fans.
The Australian Dream is a highly narrativised documentary, starting and ending with celebrations for ‘Australia Day’, an emotional moment for many indigenous Australians for whom the celebrations are painful reminders of ‘Invasion Day’ when Europeans first arrived in Australia. Adam Goodes is the hero of this story and there are recognisable ‘helpers’, ‘blockers’ and ‘villains’ in terms of a Proppian analysis of the narrative. But this isn’t necessarily a conventional narrative in which the hero attains his goal and rescues the princess in the tower. The real achievement for Adam Goodes is that he discovers himself and recognises his identity and that being able to do this helps him get through the racist abuse and resume his life as he wants to live it. He receives a great deal of support from friends, family and footy fans and also the administrators of the football game itself. The tragedy is that despite this, the words and actions associated with casual racism in Australian society generally can do so much damage.
I can’t comment directly on Australian racism. I can only respond to the representations offered by Australian film, TV, literature and broadcast media – and it looks pretty bad from that perspective. But I can recognise so much in Adam Goodes’ story from studying the attempts to stamp out racist behaviour in UK sport and especially in British football (e.g. what is now the English Premier League, the highest profile sport in the UK). In the last few years we have seen players like Raheem Sterling picked out for criticism in the tabloid press and on social media and the England team in Bulgaria in 2019 almost moved to leaving the pitch after a barrage of racist chants. They stayed and won 6-0, which is a good response but they shouldn’t have to face this abuse. The incident that sparked much of the controversy in The Australian Dream concerned a 13 year-old spectator at a major game, a girl at the front of the stand, close to the pitch, who called Goodes an ‘Ape’ when he came towards the fence. Stunned, Goodes asked for her to be removed and the stewards obliged. After the game Goodes accepted a telephone call from the girl, who apologised. He had the grace to accept the apology and to assure her that she was not the problem. She had heard this kind of language somewhere – it’s endemic in the society. But Adam Goodes can’t erase the incident and soon it was picked up by racists on social media and by Andrew Bolt, a TV pundit who accused Goodes of an over-reaction and of ruining the girl’s life. In this kind of repeated claim, the victim of racist abuse becomes responsible himself for the further abuse heaped upon him. Some of the critics of the film suggest it gave too much space to Bolt. I hadn’t come across Bolt before but he is familiar in that British TV and journalism features many similar characters. The only difference is that he appears calmer and ‘colder’ but his clear intentions are just as objectionable. Some critics have also suggested that there is too much use of Stan Grant in the film and I can see that, while Grant’s support for Goodes needs to be aired, the footballer is his own best advocate.
What is ‘casual racism’? I guess that the distinction is between ‘casual’ and ‘institutional racism’. For many years the spotlight was on attempts to fight institutional racism- the ways in which institutional structures had developed to exclude and marginalise people outside the mainstream (or in some cases the élite) in major institutions. That fight is not won yet but things have begun to improve. Ironically, the incident that sparked the racist backlash against Adam Goodes occurred in a footy game that was part of the ‘Indigenous Round’, a round of matches each season in which the contribution of Indigenous players to the League’s success is celebrated. The AFL itself has been supportive but has been undermined by some of the major figures in the game, whose racist comments have created the openings for the real fascists in the society to exploit. ‘Casual racism’ is not ‘casual’ for those who are most affected by it. Within football in particular, such comments have often been ‘excused’ or ‘de-fanged’ by renaming them ‘banter’, a concept referring to the way professional sports people play jokes on each other, insult each other etc. in the name of friendship. Banter is fine if everyone who plays the game accepts the rules. But banter can easily become deeply offensive and racial difference is very dangerous territory for ‘jokes’. In recent years, casual racism has also become part of the so-called ‘culture wars’ which have become a central poisonous discourse across social media and something exploited by the new right to devastating effect.
Adam Goodes is a remarkable man and I think many people will be moved by not only his dignified response to the attacks upon him but also by his emotional relationship with his mother, who he later discovers was part of the ‘Stolen Generation’ of Indigenous Australian children. Everyone should see films like this and ask themselves serious questions about how they behave on social media and in the decisions they make in their social lives. ‘The Australian Dream’ is an ironic and suggestive title that certainly demands investigation and reflection.
It’s very exciting to see a Spike Lee film back in wide release in UK cinemas. BlacKkKlansman just scrapes in as a wide release with 217 cinemas but these had the highest average audience numbers of any film in UK cinemas last weekend. I have a great deal of time for Spike Lee as a filmmaker with passion, creativity and political intelligence to go with a deep knowledge of cinema and the skills to make memorable films. Having said that it’s also the case that he makes a wide range of features, shorts, documentaries and other types of moving image work and sometimes he chooses projects that puzzle me. Too often he falls foul of UK distribution companies and their notorious reluctance to release African-American films. All of this means that I hadn’t actually seen a Spike Lee ‘joint’ since I managed to import a US DVD of The Miracle at St. Anna in 2009. After all the build-up to the release of BlacKkKlansman and its Cannes Grand Prix I did worry that it could be a let-down, but it isn’t. This is Spike returning to the form that produced Do the Right Thing (1989) and Bamboozled (2000), the former universally acclaimed, the latter larger ignored – but both important films.
The first point to make about BlacKkKlansman is that it is packed with a great deal of material and ideas and I found that the 135 minutes flew by. I think it will take several more viewings to properly ‘read’ the film and come to any sensible conclusion about what it might mean to different audiences. Spike Lee at his best is always provocative and attempting to build a polemic using humour as well as political insight is often rejected by audiences looking for clear resolutions. My feeling at the moment is that BlacKkKlansman makes important political statements. It certainly made me think about strategies and ways to articulate arguments and it made me question some of my assumptions and ways of thinking about politics in the UK as well as the US and indeed universally. I did also wonder at moments whether Spike gets the balance right and whether his satire works – but in the circumstances I think that is inevitable.
I recommend the Sight and Sound (September) interview with Spike Lee (I have some arguments with the rather negative review of the film in the same print issue but the online piece by Sophie Monks Kaufman is also very good). Queried by Sight and Sound interviewer Kaleem Aftab about how much of the film is actually based on the real events described by Colorado Springs police officer Ron Stallworth, Lee simply re-iterates “[the film] is based on a true story”. It’s a reasonable question – and response. Some aspects of the narrative seem so fantastical that it is hard to believe that they ever happened, but at other moments the narrative seems only too ‘real’. Ron Stallworth (played with bravura by John David Washington, son of Lee regular Denzel Washington) was the first African-American to join the Colorado Springs force in 1972 as a cadet. It wasn’t until several years later that as an undercover cop he answered an advertisement for applications to join the Ku Klux Klan. Establishing himself on the phone as a ‘white supremacist’, it then required a white officer to physically attend KKK meetings posing as ‘Ron Stallworth’. This was ‘Flip’ Zimmerman (Adam Driver). Lee and his co-writers decided to compress the story so that the events seem to take place over a few months in 1973/4. Apart from a familiar strategy to speed up the pace of the narrative, this also allows Lee to highlight questions around black identity at the time of the ‘Blaxpoitation’ cycle of films in the early 1970s alongside the fashions, the music and the ‘Black Power’ iconography.
The wonderful Afros on display, the clothes and the music and the discussion of Shaft and Superfly and Pam Grier (complete with on-screen film posters) provide a rich mise en scène which allows Lee to explore issues within African-American culture. Ron’s first undercover job was to ‘infiltrate’ a student-organised event at which Kwame Ture (aka Stokeley Carmichael, played by Corey Hawkins) makes an impassioned plea to the students to prepare for revolution. That evening Ron meets Patrice (Laura Harrier) the student president and begins a relationship. This relationship is an invention which in genre terms allows Lee to explore a romance-thriller narrative thread. We worry about Patrice, although she is generally quite capable of looking after herself and her fellow students. But as Herb Boyd in Cineaste (Fall 2018) points out, we learn relatively little about Patrice and, apart from two or three key moments, the relationship between Ron and Flip is much more important. It is Flip who is in the most danger. The script emphasises how much the Klan are anti-semitic and Flip is someone who has never really thought about his own Jewish identity. This danger (of exposure) is an element of the romance thriller that also generates the possibility of comedy and it is these scenes (i.e. Flip among the Klan members) that test Lee’s ability to balance humour and anger. He’s helped by wonderful performances all round and especially by Jasper Pääkkönen as the most suspicious Klansman and Topher Grace as David Duke, the Klan ‘Grand Wizard’. These two are chilling and completely absurd at the same time.
While much of the film narrative remains within the familiar mode of ‘Hollywood realism’, Spike explores the legacy of racism in Hollywood through extracts from Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939). I don’t want to spoil the impact of how he does this, but the appearance of Harry Belafonte is thrilling for anyone old enough to remember one of the great figures of the Civil Rights movement. Alec Baldwin’s appearance might be more puzzling for some audiences outside North America, although I guess his YouTube appearances as ‘Donald Trump’ are easily accessible around the world. The crucial question is how does Spike Lee end his narrative? We know Ron Stallworth survived his involvement with the Klan because he wrote his memoir in 2014. But it would be dangerous to leave us laughing and feeling good about victory. In fact, I think there is a narrative thread running throughout which keeps us querying Ron’s actions and his motivations. When the final section comes I think it works very well and I hope that BlacKkKlansman will become a classic ‘joint’ like Do The Right Thing.
BlacKkKlansman took £1.2 million on its first UK weekend and it looks set to be one of Spike’s biggest hits. I’ve failed to mention the initiative of Get Out writer-director Jordan Peele who initially brought the project to Lee and also Blumhouse Productions the company which made Get Out. Peele and Blumhouse are both part of the production background for BlacKkKlansman, demonstrating that Spike Lee is very much still part of the cutting edge of African-American cinema. Terence Blanchard, Lee’s long-time collaborator is still on board composing a fine score and including an array of great 1970s tracks. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin is new to me but Spike Lee has a strong track record in working with exciting camera people and Irvin’s work contributes a great deal to the look of the film. I want to finish by urging you to see this film. I also want to emphasise that there is much, much more to say about it so I hope some of you will add your comments.