Turns out, “The Australian Dream” is more similar to the American dream than we might realize — and the obstacles to achieving it are all too familiar. In both countries, idealistic conversations about opportunity and equality quickly butt up against the realities of racism. And yet, for many, as soon as the R-word comes out, the conversation shuts down, which is why examining the situation on foreign soil — through the upsetting case of Aussie rules football star Adam Goodes in Daniel Gordon’s smart, solutions-oriented essay film — serves as such a great learning tool for audiences on the other side of the globe.
Australian rules football may be the field on which this particular story unfolds, but this is no straightforward sports doc. Gordon uses blockbuster tools — pairing bold visuals with the kind of thundering sound design that makes your joints rattle — to turn his well-organized sociology lesson into a more visceral cinematic experience. More than just a compelling TED Talk, it’s an urgent and engaging call to action.
Back in America, it can be tricky to have candid discussions about why some black athletes choose to take a knee during the national anthem, or why that bothers certain sports fans so, whereas studying a related scandal Down Under brings what director Jordan Peele called the Sunken Place into sharper focus, enabling a constructive and much-needed conversation about institutional racism that might otherwise hit too close to home.
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In 2013, two-time Brownlow Medal winner Goodes sparked a scandal when he interrupted a match to insist that a disrespectful front-row spectator be ejected from the arena after yelling “You’re an ape!” at the player. This was no generic insult, but one that Goodes — whose mother is of aboriginal descent — had heard before and interpreted as a racial slur.
What he didn’t realize at the time was that the offending party was just 13 years old. When that fact registered with the public at large, angry commentators swarmed to the girl’s defense (including one particularly noxious one, Andrew Bolt, from whom we hear far too much in the film): How dare Goodes pick on a child, surely he was being too sensitive, and why did he have to make it about race?
These are familiar arguments confronting anyone who dares to call out racist behavior in white supremacist societies, where the dominant group works overtime to discredit “the black man who complained,” to quote journalist (and Goodes ally) Stan Grant from the film. It’s a tried-and-true tactic: Shift the focus from the sting of the insult to the speaker’s supposed intent — as if this girl, presumably parroting something she’d previously heard at home or in the stands, would’ve used that particular insult with a white player. The strategy is to put the offended party on the defensive, questioning or outright rejecting claims of how the attack made him feel, while discounting the lifetime of disrespect and abuse that brought Goodes to that snapping point.
What happened next was widely covered in the Australian press and is sure to feel not only depressing but also distressingly predictable for foreigners less aware of the case — no different from how such a situation might be expected to play out in the States. Pundits piled on, Goodes was demonized for speaking out, and stadium-goers took to booing him at matches. The negativity weighed heavily on Goodes, who eventually decided to retire. But he also took the opportunity to educate, participating in a reality show about his roots and accepting the Australian of the Year title.
The latter honor may not seem like such a touch decision, but it meant playing by white society’s rules — the prize is handed out on Australia Day, which is hurtful to the country’s native population — in order to gain a greater platform for his message. “It is not just about taking responsibility for your own actions, but speaking to your mates when they make racist remarks,” Goodes said in his speech. In Australia, as in the U.S., the general public doesn’t like when celebrities confront them with political messages. “Shut up and [sing/act/play]!” they cry. Never mind that Goodes has a diploma in indigenous studies. Sports remains a field where a white majority can look past the outrageously high standard of exceptionalism they put on people of color, and still discount the opinions of those who clear that achievement hurdle.
Someone who doesn’t need a platform to spew his views: conservative columnist Andrew Bolt. In the interest of “fair and balanced” reporting, director Gordon allows Bolt — a white man with access to his own megaphone — to offer his provocative counter-opinions throughout the film. (For the record, documentaries needn’t give airtime to bigots, although Bolt’s risible arguments help to communicate what many Australians may subconsciously be feeling.)
Grant — who wrote the film — probably felt the “other side” needed to be heard, so that he and a handful of more eloquent talking heads (including politician Linda Burney and former AFL star Gilbert McAdam) might put Goodes’ case in historical perspective. Together, they explain the principle of “terra nullius” under which Australia was colonized, whereby Capt. Cook effectively declared the land uninhabited — despite clear evidence of native civilization. The policy cleared the path for white settlers and served to justify all manner of mistreatment of the aborigine population, who were not granted citizenship until 1967.
Again, the parallels to the United States’ race history are uncanny. Yet the film proves invaluable in part because it holds at arm’s length the same tensions — outlining the privilege that whites refuse to acknowledge, underscoring the pain that natives feel when the government commemorates the day their oppression began — Americans experience. Here, we see illustrated a “safe” equivalent to Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” speech, and we may come to understand our own situation better.
The movie is too long, by perhaps 20 minutes. Grant’s remarks on racism, delivered at a 2015 Intelligence Squared debate, would have been a natural ending — and a tighter cut might prove more impactful abroad. Here, Grant and Gordon insist on putting a patriotic spin on the situation. There is hope for a way forward, they believe, though such positivity takes the urgency out of their argument. The Australian people may be fundamentally good, but the problem is real. And it’s more universal than they know.