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Must-watch representations of First Nations Australians on TV

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From outrageous comedies to engrossing documentaries, we take a look at a diverse selection of engaging stories about the Indigenous experience in Australia on TV.

Basically Black (1973) 

Although Basically Black never made it past a 30-minute single pilot episode, the sketch comedy starring Bob Maza, Gary Foley, Aileen Corpus III, Zac Martin and Bindi Williams was the first all-Indigenous television show produced in Australia. The program was a censored, watered down version of the successful stage production of the same name which ran the previous year at Sydney’s Nimrod Theatre. With its lighthearted and unashamedly politically incorrect observations on racial prejudices in Australia, Basically Black paved the way for shows like Black Comedy (2014).  

Redfern Now (2012–13)

Produced by Blackfella films (First Australians, 2008; Mabo, 2012), and directed by Rachel Perkins, Catriona Menzies, Wayne Blair and Leah Purcell, the multi award-winning Redfern Now is comprised of interconnected stories following the troubled lives of Indigenous Australians living in the rundown inner Sydney suburb of Redfern. The series features a cast of veteran Indigenous actors, including Deborah Mailman, Kelton Pell, Ursula Yovich, Wayne Blair and Ernie Dingo, as well as Miranda Tapsell and Meyne Wyatt in early roles. The series concluded with a telemovie in 2015; Redfern Now: Promise me

Cleverman (2016–17) 

In a not-too-distant future, the “hairies” – superhuman creatures from ancient Indigenous mythology – must battle for survival in a society that openly persecutes them. Cleverman stormed onto ABC TV in 2016 as a dystopian sci-fi with a difference. With predominantly Indigenous cast and senior crew, the series explores a series of Aboriginal origin stories in a contemporary context, with political nuance touching on themes of class, racism and power.  

Mabo (2012)

Rachel Perkins’ biopic follows the battle waged by Torres Strait Islander man Eddie Koiki Mabo to bring about native land title legislation. Mabo (starring Jimi Bani in the titular role) spans the iconic land rights campaigner’s life, from growing up on Murray Island in the Torres Strait and falling in love with his wife Bonita (Deborah Mailman) to the Hight Court decision to overturn terra nullius – the mind-bogglingly absurd doctrine that Australia was unoccupied before European settlement – five months after his death in 1992.  

First Australians (2008)

First Australians, a seven-part SBS series told from the perspective of Indigenous Australians, chronicles the often brutal and tragic history of Australia from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 to Koiki Mabo’s battle for native land title. It features commentary from Indigenous historians such as Bruce Pascoe and Marcia Langton and was produced in consultation with the descendants of the documentary’s subjects, who were given the opportunity to check the contents of the scripts and view various cuts of the episodes before they aired. 

Bush Mechanics (1998–2001) 

Like Top Gear and McGyver rolled into one, this documentary series follows a group of Indigenous men from Yuendumu fixing cars in unorthodox and inventive ways as they travel through Central Australia. In one episode a car roof is hacked off, turned upside down, hitched to the back and used as a trailer. In another, a concoction of water and Omo soap powder is used as a substitute for brake fluid. It’s also notable for being one of the first series where characters speak almost entirely in the Walpiri language. 

Bush Mechanics will feature in our new museum space when we reopen in mid-2020.  

Black Comedy (2014)

Featuring a cast of Indigenous artists at the forefront of contemporary social commentary, including Adam Briggs, Nayuka Gorrie, and Nakkiah Lui, Black Comedy takes the formula of Basically Black’s edgy comedic observations and projects it through the prism of 2010s Australian society, pop culture, films, TV, and commercials. 

Jimi Bani in Blue Water Empire

Jimi Bani stars in Blue Water Empire

Blue Water Empire (2019)

This 3-part docudrama series introduces viewers to the rich history of the Torres Strait Islands, from the pre-colonial era to modern times. The series is given an authentic voice through the narration and performance of Torres Strait Islander Aaron Fa’Aoso, who tells the story of a unique sea-faring culture exploited and torn asunder by European colonial forces. As Karl Quinn writes in The Sydney Morning Herald: “Every Australian, and especially every Australian schoolchild, should see this series; it's time for us all to stop pleading ignorance.” 

The Australian Dream and The Final Quarter (2019)

This year we were given two films about Adam Goodes that served as biographies of the legendary Indigenous AFL player, and as indictments of a mainstream Australian media and fandom that reveres athletes, but heaps scorn of them for pointing out racial prejudices – more so when they are Indigenous. The Final Quarter examines the closing years of Goodes’ stellar career, which were blighted by racial incidents that provoked heated media commentary, while The Australian Dream (written by Stan Grant) explores Australia’s dark colonial past and its treatment of Indigenous people, and traces Goodes’ personal journey as a footballer and his struggles with identity. 

Get Krack!n series finale (2019)

For the very last episode of this satire of Australian breakfast television, regular hosts Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney handed the reins to Indigenous actors Miranda Tapsell and Nakkiah Lui who then took their chance to fire rockets at white mainstream TV and its subjugation of marginalised people.

The last few minutes descend into glorious, cathartic chaos as Tapsell reaches breaking point during a discussion with a group of white talking heads about “whether racism is real” and smashes a window with an urn containing ‘the ashes of Australian TV: 5/11/1956 – 13/3/2018’ – a reference to the airdate of Sunrise segment where Prue MacSween stated: “… we need to do it (the Stolen Generation) again, perhaps”. As Alison Whittaker wrote in The Guardian, “it was the most nourishing despair I have felt in a long time”. 

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