‘Cos I’m Black: Aboriginal Stories on Screen After the Apology

On the same day Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson powerfully reminded us of the enabling of opportunity for black and white Australians legislated by Gough Whitlam’s government in the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act, ABC Television premiered its new sketch comedy, Black Comedy.

Touted by the ABC on facebook as comedy that goes “blackly where no other blackfella has gone before,” the show has been created by the ABC’s Indigenous Development department. It is comedy written, produced and performed by Aboriginal people. It looks at Aboriginal lives, race and race relations in a way that has never been seen on Australian TV screens.

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Black Comedy’s opening sketch features a Captain Cook look-alike aboard a Royal Navy ship. He sights an Aboriginal man standing on a rock with a spear in hand. When the Aboriginal man realises he is being watched he launches into an impromptu tap dance accompanied by navy pipes. The Captain observes the scene disdainfully. He gives a nod to one of his crew, a cannon is fired and the ‘Bennelong’ man disappears in a big puff of black smoke.

The skit is irreverent, the dancing is pretty funny and the sudden end to the sketch is unexpected. The use of humour to portray the ferocity of first contact is groundbreaking television. The history of white settlement and the dispossession and devastation for Australia’s Indigenous people is remembered in a completely new way.

Black Comedy is just one more first in a long line of firsts for Aboriginal screen productions over the last five years. Samson & Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009) was the first Aboriginal feature film to achieve commercial success and win the prestigious Camera d’Or prize at Cannes. The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2012) topped the Australian box office earnings in 2012 grossing more than $14.5m. TV series Redfern Now (Rachel Perkins, 2012/13) was the first drama production made by and about Aboriginal people to air on mainstream television and was awarded two AACTA awards.

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Redfernnow

Historical representations of Aboriginal people as remote, mystical, traditional and disconnected from modern Australia have been replaced by images of resilience, success, joy, depth and complexity. In film and television shows created and performed by Aboriginal people the use of humour, inverted stereotypes and surprising endings have formed fresh imaginings of Australian history.

New images of Aboriginal lives on Australian and international screens reverses the absence of Aboriginal people in Australian colonial history, a history which is so often remembered minus the Aboriginal dispossession. New productions provoke the national consciousness into viewing the first Australians in a different way, in a way Aboriginal people want to be seen.

What changed for Aboriginal people to enable them to create this cultural genius? Marcia Langton suggests the dramatic increase in wealth a mining boom brings to any nation has empowered Aboriginal people within the mainstream economy and allowed them to enjoy all the advantages that go along with new wealth.

Coinciding with growing economic engagement was a milestone political event, the Federal Government’s 2008 Apology to the Aboriginal Stolen Generations. Broadcast live from Parliament House, this symbolic and very public acknowledgement of injustices and the dispossession of Australia’s first people triggered controversy and debate. The Apology linked past treatment of Aboriginal people to their experience of socio-economic disadvantage today.

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The Apology caused a shift in both black and white attitudes to modern Aboriginal life and sparked a ‘new guard’ of cultural creativity that has exploded onto Australian screens. It boosted confidence that it was finally time for Aboriginal artists to create their own version of the Australian story. It was time for audiences to watch and listen to the challenges facing contemporary Aboriginal people from an Aboriginal perspective. It was time for what historian Bain Attwood calls a ‘new history,’ an Australian story inclusive of a previously suppressed Aboriginal past.

It is definitely not all comedy though and sometimes uncomfortable to watch. Warwick Thornton’s Samson & Delilah follows two Aboriginal teenagers spiraling out of control through addiction, abuse and violence while an eerie silence and stillness dominates the film.

samson&delilahad

It is a love story but Thornton was comfortable in disturbing his viewers. He was happy to portray the complexity and devastation of these young lives. He looked to humanise petrol-sniffing addiction, remind us of the brutality of a marginalised people living in the Northern Territory under the Intervention. He also wanted to provoke his elders into looking into the lives of these lost kids.

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Complex portrayals of modern Aboriginal issues and the unique difficulties Aboriginal people face in negotiating a post-colonial Australia undermine the commercial and critical triumph of this production. Attention to detail, an understanding of the intricacies of familial and social connections within Aboriginal communities, and the pride with which Aboriginal heritage in all its complexities is portrayed has ensured its success.

In stark contrast, The Sapphires is a story of accomplishment and joy. It remembers four Aboriginal women who formed a soul group in 1968 and toured Vietnam to perform for Australian and American troops. This upbeat musical comedy bounces off the screen with spirit and jubilation, accompanied by a stirring 1960s soul soundtrack. The director Wayne Blair has commented on the profound impact of the Apology not only for himself but for all Aboriginal people.

sapphires

The recent television drama series from Rachel Perkins’ Blackfella Films, Redfern Now, received widespread critical acclaim and ignited an exuberant social media response. Issues concerning family commitment and conflict, economic success and exclusion, internal discontent within Aboriginal communities and the nature of Aboriginal identity are portrayed.

In one episode the local matriarch Coral chastises the neighbour’s kids on the Redfern Block for acting aggressively and bullying her granddaughter, a university student living outside Redfern who has come to visit. Coral quips, “What are you lot gawking at? Haven’t you ever seen someone with a future before?” An active, committed and determined female Aboriginal voice, a refreshing contrast to earlier stereotyped screen representations of Aboriginal people as trackers, station hands and voiceless victims of addiction and abuse.

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During Pearson’s eulogy to “Australia’s greatest white elder” Gough Whitlam, he reminded us of the power of political change on individual Aboriginal lives. Recent film and television stories by Aboriginal people remind us also of the power of politics and economics in influencing culture and the pivotal role film and television plays in shaping our national identity and history.

Source Material

ABC Black Comedy facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/pages/ABC-Black-Comedy.

Bain Attwood, In the Age of Mabo, ed. Bain Attwood, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1996.

Wayne Blair, “The Sapphires.” Toronto International Film Festival, Toronto, September 2012. Published 3rd April 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y53VFR34C74. Accessed 21st October 2014.

Boyer Lectures, 2012, ‘The Quiet Revolution: Indigenous People and the Resources Boom’, Marcia Langton, http:/www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/boyerlectures. Accessed 6 August 2014.

Noel Pearson – Eulogy for Gough Whitlam, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsXmYHiuJ8s.

Redfern Now, Blackfella Films, Season 1, Episode 2, ‘Joyride’

Screen Australia, “The Sapphires Marks a Great Year For Indigenous Screen Stories.” http://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/news_and_events/2013/mr_130123_boxoffice.aspx

W.E.H. Stanner, 1969. After the Dreaming: Black & white Australians – an anthropologist’s view. Sydney, NSW: Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1969.

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3 comments on “‘Cos I’m Black: Aboriginal Stories on Screen After the Apology

  1. andy1giles says:

    Hi Libby,
    I also caught that first episode of Black Comedy – it was okay, the skits were a bit hit and miss for my taste. I haven’t seen ‘Redfern Now’, but I think I’d really like to; it sounds like a real life portrayal of people (regardless of their culture) from a complex and changing area of Sydney.
    While I haven’t done the research you have, I disagree with Marcia Langton’s argument around the mining boom resulting in ’empowering’ Aboriginal people through the ‘mainstream’ economy and the heavy significance of the 2008 apology (though that was long overdue and symbolically important, no question). Instead, I would argue that since the Racial Discrimination Act there have been increasing calls for higher indigenous participation in Australian popular culture as well as increasing opportunities for that participation. I think that it has been through the slow and painstaking process of advocacy, policy reform and cultural shifts that higher value has been placed on indigenous culture in Australia.
    I would also point out that while Pearson did powerfully remind us of the ‘enabling of opportunity for black and white Australians legislated by Gough Whitlam’s government in the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act’, it was also Pearson that provided crucial support for the compromise of that legislation when the Howard Government enacted the Northern Territory Intervention in 2007. The Intervention has, in my opinion, provided a wealth of powerful negative associations with and symbols of Aboriginal culture in Australia. It represents a significant regression in Aboriginal Affairs, feeding negative and stereotyped public perceptions of Aboriginal Australia. I think that the ‘power of political change on individual Aboriginal lives’ is still primarily change for the worse, and that there is a long way for Australia to go to come to terms with the last 226 years of history.
    Having said that, Aboriginal representation on TV and in films is broadly, I think, a very good thing. Here’s to more of it! (except confrontation reality TV like ‘First Contact’ which seems very problematic to me… but that’s another story…)
    Andy

  2. libbyadams29 says:

    Andy

    Thanks for your reply.

    Langton’s arguments regarding the “accrual of the first generation of private material wealth” through economic empowerment for many Aboriginal people is difficult to counter given Aboriginal employment data in the mining sector and the significant income derived from mining lease agreements. The Central Land Council reports mining on Aboriginal land now contributes more than a billion dollars a year to the NT economy. (www..clc.org.au)

    Langton also looks to other ‘successes’ by Aboriginal people including greater political representation in both the House of Representatives, State Parliaments and Legislative Assemblies as well as increased Aboriginal enrolment in tertiary education.

    The history of Aboriginal political activism leading to the Apology in 2008 is complex. Aboriginal elders such as Willam Barak of the Wurundjeri nation were politically active in the late 19th century opposing the 1886 Half-Caste Act in Victoria. Doug Nicholls of the Yorta Yorta nation during the 1960s advocating for Aboriginal civil rights as well as Charlie Perkins and the Freedom Ride protests against segregation which culminated in the 1967 Referendum. Eddie Koiki Mabo’s commitment to challenging land rights through the High Court a more recent example of Aboriginal activism leading to political and social change.

    I am arguing Aboriginal economic conditions have changed, the political and social landscape surrounding Aboriginal issues has shifted and screen representations of Aboriginal lives reflect this. The primary change is the stories are now being told by Aboriginal artists.

    Pearson’s political views and support or otherwise of the NT Intervention does not form part of this argument. I think his presence and eloquence on the stage at Whitlam’s eulogy, however, in front of a brigade of former Prime Ministers, as well as the current PM, suggests change has occurred in Aboriginal rights over the last 50 years.

    I am very much looking forward to viewing First Contact. It has been produced in conjunction with Rachel Perkins of Blackfella films and will hopefully provide further insight into Aboriginal lives.

  3. Lang Reid says:

    As a person who has never seen any of the Aboriginal films you referenced, your post has ignited an interest to do so. I don’t know enough about Indigenous representations in the media and on film to express an opinion either way but I was extremely moved and inspired by Noel Pearson’s memorial speech of Whitlam’s legacy in relation to the advancement of Indigenous rights.

    Particular parts of the speech that struck me were,

    “I don’t know why someone with this old man’s upper middle class background could carry such a burning conviction that the barriers of class and race of the Australia of his upbringing and maturation should be torn down and replaced with the unapologetic principle of equality.
    I can scarcely point to any white Australian political leader of his vintage and of generations following of whom it could be said without a shadow of doubt, he harboured not a bone of racial, ethnic or gender prejudice in his body.
    ….
    Only those born bereft truly know the power of opportunity. Only those accustomed to its consolations can deprecate a public life dedicated to its furtherance and renewal. This old man never wanted opportunity himself but he possessed the keenest conviction in its importance.”

    I tend to agree with Andy that the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 played a significant role in advancing Indigenous rights and paved the way for their participation in Australian public discourse and popular culture. It is exciting that more films are produced by our first Australians and it is heartening to think that these recent representations might be positive enough so that they are how the indigenous peoples want to be viewed by the rest of Australians. I will have to watch them to see whether they are indeed positive representations. Whatever the case, I believe that the closer our art and film reflect the full depth and breadth of Australians, the more enriched our society will be.

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