'The Stand: How One Gesture Shook the World': Film Review

The Stand: How One Gesture Shook the World- Publicity still - H 2020
Tucker MacDonald / 1091 Pictures
Gives a famous image some of the context it deserves.
8/4/2020

Tom Ratcliffe and Becky Paige's doc focuses on the Black athletes whose silent protest rocked the Olympics in 1968.

An iconic image of protest gets its backstory explored in The Stand, Tom Ratcliffe and Becky Paige's look at two Black Olympians who raised their fists and bowed their heads at the 1968 Mexico City games. Reminding viewers that Colin Kaepernick was far from the first athlete to be told he should keep his principles off the field, the straightforward but welcome doc doesn't need to spell out how many of its protagonists' concerns remain pressing today.

Many viewers will be unaware that Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the track-and-field medalists who raised their fists after receiving medals, had considered more dramatic forms of protest: Some Black athletes had proposed boycotting the Olympic games entirely, or had considered going and, should they win events, refusing to accept medals on behalf of a country that had treated them so poorly.

The filmmakers might've provided us with more of the specific complaints these men had; instead, their assessment of "The Struggle" relies on very familiar images of police brutality and general observations about how much remained unfixed after the Civil Rights movement's legal successes. Athletes including Ralph Boston and Mel Pender recall their childhoods in ways that would be appropriate for any doc about race in America; only occasionally does the film get concrete about how athletes experienced discrimination.

Then we meet Harry Edwards, organizer of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. In vintage newsreel footage, Edwards is an impressive spokesman: Framed in closeup as he wears dark sunglasses indoors, he calmly asserts athletes' right to use their prominence to speak the truth without punishment. (One of the OPHR's key complaints, not cited here, was that Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his heavyweight title because of his opposition to war in Vietnam.)

Most relevant to this film's narrative is the objection athletes had to Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee. As the film tells it, Brundage objected to anything a Black athlete might do to publicly convey support of a social cause. (Interviewees pointedly observe that Brundage had fought to keep the U.S. from boycotting the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, and had made no objection to the Nazi salutes seen there.)

As OPHR members publicly discussed the possibility of boycotting the 1968 games, they drew support from some unexpected places. The filmmakers devote a sizable chunk of their time to the story of a rowing crew at Harvard whose all-white members wanted to help: They met with Edwards to ask what they could do; interviewed today, Edwards recalls "the fundamental role that they played in this movement."

The doc finds some old-fashioned sports-movie drama in the races leading up to that famous award ceremony: Smith injured his groin in the semifinals and could hardly expect to be competitive in the final race. Speaking at length to Ratcliffe and Paige (John Carlos' interviews were conducted by other filmmakers years ago), he gives a beat-by-beat account of how he held his body together long enough to finish first.

If that sequence has a touch of mythmaking to it, the explanation of what followed is more modest. Though Smith had taken certain steps to prepare for a public gesture (he'd asked his wife to bring him a pair of black gloves from home; he and Carlos wore other symbolic items onto the field), he insists he didn't know exactly what he would do until the moment he did it. He also says his raised fist was "not a black power sign — not at all," but instead signified "solidarity and strength" with a broader human-rights cause.

Such subtleties were lost on many in the media and the public. Carlos and Smith paid a price for their gesture, starting with the boos as they walked off the field. But in the half-century since, generations have recognized the moral courage in what they did. And only the willfully ignorant fail to grasp that publicly expressing one's concerns about the state of his country is a very different thing from being unpatriotic.

Production company: Kimbia
Distributor: 1091 (Available Tuesday, August 4, on digital and on-demand)
Directors: Tom Ratcliffe, Becky Paige
Producers: Tom Ratcliffe, Michael King
Executive producers: Selena Roberts
Director of photography: Editor: Becky Paige

69 minutes