The Australian Dream

A hard-hitting documentary on racism in Australian sport and society

Australia Day is celebrated on 26 January, marking the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet on Australian soil at Port Jackson, New South Wales, in 1788. Yet for many Australians, the day is a sad occasion, and is instead Invasion Day. In claiming Australia for the then British Empire, Captain Cook declared the Great Southern Land as “terra nullius”, or an empty land, despite the fact that there had been people living there for some sixty thousand years. There has been for a long time a campaign to move the celebration of nationhood to a different date, and many annual celebrations are held a day before or a day after out of respect to the feelings of Indigenous Australians.

A recap of this begins The Australian Dream, a feature-length documentary directed by Daniel Gordon. The film centres on Adam Goodes, one of the greatest Australian Rules Football (AFL) players, named Australian of the Year in 2014. (This is the second documentary dealing with Goodes which came out in 2019, the other being The Final Quarter, of which a UK release is unconfirmed.) Goodes, born in 1980, was of multiracial heritage, his mother Indigenous (Adnyamathanha and Narungga peoples) and his father of Irish and Scottish ancestry. His parents separated when he was four, and his mother brought Adam and his siblings up on her own. Yet, as he says, he was never thought of as white, was always “that black kid”. However, he soon developed an aptitude for Aussie Rules, which he began to play from the age of six at school. At sixteen, he began to play for the North Ballarat Rebels and when they won the premiership, he was signed to the Sydney Swans.

Yet it wasn’t long before Goodes experienced racism on the pitch, both from other players and from spectators. In 1993, another star player, Nicky Winmar (interviewed in this film), had responded to racist taunts by lifting up his shirt and pointing to his chest, expressing his pride in the colour of his skin. That was, according to some commentators, as significant in Australian sport as Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black Power salute at their 1968 medal ceremony had been in the history of the Olympics. Goodes recreated the picture twenty years later. However, trouble was soon at hand.

An incident in 2013 when Goodes insisted a spectator be ejected from the stadium for calling him an ape caused controversy, especially when that spectator turned out to be a thirteen-year-old girl. Goodes did not condemn her and offered his support and would speak to her on the phone (which did happen, and she did apologise) but many saw that Goodes was simply too thin-skinned. This was amplified a year later when he was named Australian of the Year and decried racism in his acceptance speech. Commentators criticised him and comedians parodied him (sometimes in blackface). Social media turned on him. For many, Goodes had become the unacceptable: the black man who complains. From that point on, he was frequently booed by spectators at the matches he played.

The documentary follows all this, with substantial use of archive material and interviews. Much of the latter comes from Stan Grant, who also wrote the film, a journalist who is also of mixed Indigenous heritage. While it’s clear where the film’s sympathies lie, to its credit it does let us hear the voices of the opposition, for example conservative broadcaster and columnist Andrew Bolt.

Goodes’s response was to attempt to reconnect with his past. He spent time in the outback home of his people. In 2014, he appeared on the Australian edition of Who Do You Think You Are? On that, his mother spoke for the first time of her experiences as part of the Stolen Generation. She’s brought to tears by the memory, and a recap of that particular episode of Australian history is undeniably moving. While Goodes, now retired as a player, tries to find peace, we can’t avoid the sense that for Indigenous Australians, “We heard the howl of the Australian Dream and it said to us again – You’re not welcome.”

The Australian Dream won the AACTA Award for Best Feature Documentary, and is streaming from 12th June


Updated: Jun 10, 2020

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