Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Aug 03, 2020 2:48 pm 
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Iconic gestures and unsung heroes at Mexico City 1968

There is a recent made-for-TV documentary 1968 – A Mexico City Documentary I NBC Olympics narrated by Serena Williams. It was broadcast in February 2018 and is available on YouTube. This provides coverage of the Tommie Smith-John Carlos raised fist salute during the American anthem after winning the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meter race - along with more about the the whole context of the Mexico City Olympics. It is a good film, and I recommend it for anyone interested in this dramatic moment in Olympic history - and one of the most thrilling and memorable Olympic Games in modern times.

The documentary I'm discussing here, The Stand, is also useful viewing for the more specific angle it provides, focused on the politics and not only the black American athletes but particularly also the white athletes who supported them. There is another film, Geoff Small's The Black Power Salute (2008), which heralds the Smith/Carlos gesture as "one of the most iconic images of the 20th century." And there are doubtless various other films.

All these films begin and end with Tommie Smith, the six-foot-four sprinter from San Jose State who picked cotton in the fields with his father as a youth. The Stand focuses on Harry Edwards and the Olympic Project for Human Rights he established earlier, so we see the planning and events that led up to Smith and Carlos' legendary symbolic gesture. Originally a boycott of the Olympics was planned by the black athletes, but Tommie Smith, a stanch supporter of Edwards from the start, agreed with the others that they wanted to compete.

This was a thrilling Olympics for its track and field talent, especially the American athletes. Mexico City was also a controversial choice, and student demonstrations in Tlatelolco plaza prior to the Games was put down brutally, with police shooting and killing hundreds. This brutal political repression was to be echoed in a more muted way later in the Olympics themselves.

As we learn in more detail here, he black athletes were not alone; they had a surprising white Ivy League faction. In The Stand we get to hear more about the support of the Harvard rowing team, who, when in California for the Olympic trials, went to meet with Professor Edwards at San Jose State and after Edwards came to Cambridge and they issued statement of support, wrote letters to other US Olympic team members urging them to join. This was meet with silence, and so the rowing crew's support of the OPHR became important. Speaking here, rowing team member Cleve Livingston declares the black power salute "one of the most powerful pieces of performance art that has ever been created." Harvard rowing team coxwain Paul Hoffman, apparently the leader of the crew's support, is also heard from here at length. Crew member Jack Fechter is seen at Mexico City eloquently supporting political statements.

When the team met to consider the black boycott with Harry Edwards in Cambridge at the time, in "his finest hour," Hoffman thinks, Coach Harry Parker did not object to the idea. Captain Curt Canning signed on; only three members of the crew of eight abstained. The Harvard crew's Olympic support, made public at a press conference, got tremendous local coverage and is still honored by Harry Edwards today as "special" and playing "a fundamental role in this movement." (For more detail see Rick Maese's article in the Washington Post.)

The image is iconic, and such a rich one that perhaps no documentary can ever quite do it justice. Perhaps a novel, or a fiction feature - but the people, though larger than life are still smaller than the moment, no matter how it is approached. An article by Alex Billingham for announcing the release of this film gets several things wrong. He calls the raised arms "a gesture of defiance." It was meant as a gesture of solidarityy. He says the Olympic committee took Smith's and Carlos' medals away. It sent them home, but did not take away their medals. And he calls Australian Peter Noonan who shared the platform "the third place guy." In fact Noonan - extraordinary for "a white guy" though it may have been, as Carlos says in the NBC doc,* was the silver medal winner; Carlos was the "third place guy." (Norman is an unsung, misunderstood hero, and there's a book about him: 50 years on, his 200 meters time is still the Australian record.) Billingham also says, "This seems to be a bit of an opportunistic release, considering the #BlackLivesMatter revolution happening now in the Us."

This is not an "opportunistic" but a timely release, and presenting the famous gesture more fully in the context of the struggle for African American rights and the specific activities led by San Jose State Sociology professor Harry Edwards is welcome at this time of the worldwide response to the killing of George Floyd, the wide dissemination of Black Lives Matter, and athletes' widespread "taking the knee" led by Colin Kaepernick.

The gesture of Smith and Carlos was carefully fitted with symbolic gestures, including going barefoot in black socks to symbolize black poverty, and a scarf and necklace to stand for lynchings. They also had on OPHR pins, and Peter Norman had borrowed one - from the Harvard coxwain - in solidarity - which led to his being ostracized with them, honorably. (The bond remained lifelong.) Though they were sent home, subsequent black athletes in this Olympics who won medals, Bob Beamon, Ralph Boston Lee Edwards, Mel Pender, and others, used their own gestures, of brotherhood just not as dramatic or as visible as the raised fists.

One would like The Stand to include more - as I said nothing can be enough on this complex moment - and this film would be richer - if it did more to explore the gesture as symbol and the ramifications of response to it in America and throughout the world - not to mention the ostracism and deprivation Smith and Carlos suffered as a result of their being excluded from international competition after that day in October 1968 in Mexico City. (For a recent account in honor, like this film, of the fiftieth anniversary of the event, see Tik Root's article in the October 2019 Atlantic.)

An element of redundancy is inevitable because this moment has been so much explored already. Harry Edwards, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos have in some degree lived their whole lives in the half century since in the shadow of the riveting, unforgettable moment they shaped and created. They have new things to say as their perspective matures. Here, we hear more from the Harvard rowing team than ever before. What they have to say is a valuable corrective to the bigotry of the criticism of Smith's and Carlos' gesture, notably that of Olympics head Avery Brundage, who we learn here wanted to respond by disqualifying the entire US Olympic team. Sending the two men home was a compromise to placate Brundage and keep the US team in competition.

The Stand spells out Brundage's racist history, how he pushed through the US participation in the 1936 Nazi Olympics with a meeting at the NYAC, where no Jewish Olympic Committee members could enter. Brundage was a major stickler for the separation of politics and sport - in other words, athletes not allowed to think - not so easy to sell in 1968. But the cox, Hoffman's lending his button to Noonan almost got him expelled and the US out of rowing. (His little gesture of solidarity locked Noonan too out of future world competition.)

The initiative of the Harvard rowing team wasn't so easy as it had looked. But it showed there were white athletes who supported and understood - despite the widespread disapproval and incomprehension. Sports reporter Howard Cosell, famous for Monday Night Football and his longtime bond with Muhammad Ali, also notably gave Tommie Smith a sympathetic interview allowing him to explain what the Black Power salute meant on the platform that day. We are still learning.

Tom Radcliffe, who co-directed here, also worked on and coproduced Bannister: Everest on the Track, which IndieWire named one of the thirteen best sports documentaries of all time.

The Stand, 69 mins., was presented by GlobeDocs, Dec. 4, 2018. Now to be offered Aug. 4, 2020 online on 1091 Film Room.
*I ain't never seen no white guy run like that," says Carlos in the NBC film. Noonan was very fast.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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