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.
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.
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representations of Aboriginal people as remote, mystical, traditional and disconnected from modern Australia have been replaced by images of resilience, success, joy, depth and complexity.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.