Racial tension on Australian screens
Ever since Australia was colonised, our Anglo population has often found itself in conflict with the original inhabitants of the land and nearly every migratory group that have settled down under.
This is a country that has a persistent inability to reconcile white and black Australia and a film history to reflect that inability. One of the first films to empathise with Indigenous peoples caught between their ancestral world and the Western customs imposed on them was Charles Chauvel’s Jedda (1955) with the titular Jedda an Aboriginal orphan raised reluctantly by the white wife of a cattle station owner, who, once grown up, feels drawn to her Indigenous kinfolk.
Jedda was significant in that it was the first film to feature Aboriginal leads, with Ngarla Kunoth playing Jedda and Robert Tudawali as Marbuck. But for every step forward Jedda takes, it takes two back. Jedda’s love interest Joe, a half-caste stockman, was played by white actor Paul Clark in blackface, and Jedda’s attraction to tribesman Marbuck results in her being kidnapped by him and ultimately leads to her death. In Jedda, Marbuck is painted as primal and sexualised, favouring Jedda’s death over her return to the white world, and despite Chauvel’s sympathy for his characters he still seems to suggest they’re better off in the world of whites, as Jedda allowing herself to be drawn to Marbuck and her heritage results in her demise.
The pitfalls of assimilation are far more obvious in films like The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978), where Blacksmith (Tom E. Lewis) is ill-treated by employers, forced to perpetrate violence against other Aborigines, and plotted against by the friends and family of his white partner. In Wrong Side of the Road (1983), many were exposed to the police harassment suffered by Aborigines through the tale of the real life bands Us Mob and No Fixed Address, while Black and White (2002) illuminates the unjust 1958 conviction and hanging of Max Stuart (David Ngoombujarra) for murder.
Other, more contemporary films such as Australian Rules (2002) show too that even in the sphere of Australian Rules Football, where white and black Australians co-exist, racism, both subtle and obvious, is still rife. Essential viewing on the topic continues with Molly Reynold’s troubling documentary, Another Country (2015), which analyses the devastating effects of white settlement on Indigenous cultures across Australia.
Australia’s shaky relationship with immigrants was also explored as far back as 1928. The Birth of White Australia is a shambolic, pseudo-historic feature that flashes through time, from Captain Cook and company’s clashes with members of the Gweagal clan to the anti-Chinese movement of the Lambing Flat Riots in 1861, which the film alarmingly attempts to justify by depicting an alleged incident of a white woman being attacked by Chinese miners. Though laughable today, the film was quite serious in its backwards depiction of the Chinese.
Fast forward to the 1980s, over 15 years since the White Australia policy was abandoned, our road to multiculturalism was met with stiff resistance, particularly the 120,000 southern Asians who immigrated during the 1980s and 1990s. Though a film about a Japanese woman married to a white man in post-WWII Australia, Aya (1990) felt very much like it was made in response to the wider anti-Asian sentiment of the time. In the film, Aya struggles to maintain her traditions while assimilating in white-middle class Australia, with her presence met by many with ignorance and anger. Even her husband in the film admonishes her when she speaks Japanese to their young son; saying “he’s not bloody Japanese”.
Australian anger towards Asian immigration was also reflected in Ozploitation flicks like Dead End Drive-In (1986), in which the largely white inmates of a dystopian prison chant “Asians out” when Asian inmates are introduced to the prison. Even straight to-TV-movies weren’t afraid to address Australia’s problematic attitude to Asian immigrants. Although it might sound like a throwaway and un-PC telemovie, Mail-Order Bride (1984) starring Home & Away’s Ray Meagher (Alf Stewart) is far from.
After ordering a Filipino mail-order bride named Ampy, Kevin (Meagher) is quick to use verbal violence to assert his control. When Ampy is sexually assaulted and beaten by Kevin’s ‘mate’, his anger gives way to guilt, and Kevin attempts some sort of redemption, but it’s suggested that his friend’s actions are merely an extension of his own treatment of her, with the film offering a criticism of the misogyny and bigotry of the time, airing on Australian television the very year Australia enacted its first Sex Discrimination Act.
No film would shock Australian audiences more than Romper Stomper (1992) though, which highlighted the resurgence of Neo-Nazism and nationalistic groups in the most violent and confronting way – with Russell Crowe’s Hando and co. callously assaulting Vietnamese in Melbourne’s Western suburbs.
To this day Romper Stomper still stands as the definitive film on Australia’s troubled path to multiculturalism, and time will tell whether Abe Forsyth’s boldly named Down Under takes a similar significant place. Set in the wake of the Cronulla riots, Down Under follows two groups, a carload of whites and a carload of Muslims, both seeking vengeance for perceived injustices against them. What sets Forsyth’s film apart is its comedic approach to such a dark chapter in Australia’s history, with the director inviting us to both laugh at and sympathise with the film’s characters.
“You have enough moments to understand their point of view, even if you don’t agree with it,” Forsyth told The Sydney Morning Herald. And comedy is the key in the leading the audience to that point of view, as it has the potential to disarm those that may identify with one side or the other. With some of the film’s more extreme characters, Forsyth begins by lampooning them but then artfully reveals each character’s concerns and where those concerns grow from.
On the Lebanese side, Nick complains about being treated “like a second class citizen” whilst the older, more pious Ibrahim laments the ownership the local ‘Aussies’ feel over Cronulla beach. On the Australian side, the threat to the masculinity and \ the way of life for Justin and Ditch acknowledges such concerns don’t go away overnight. By paralleling the two opposing groups, Forsyth cleverly makes us link their respective concerns and journey, a subtle way of suggesting we’re all the same on some level.
So the film, nor its subject he says Forsyth, should be taken lightly, telling The Daily Mail that, “there’s a lot of things involved in the Cronulla Riots and what’s happening in the world generally that I kind of find absurd, and I’m using this film to highlight that”, an approach that he pulls off well.
Understandably the tendency is often to address the dire state of race relations in Australia with drama rather humour, but after hearing Forsyth speak ahead of Down Under’s recent MIFF screening it’s clear he’s hopeful the film has an impact and is seen far and wide as a result of its comedy. Because in little left-wing pockets of Melbourne a film like Down Under may well be preaching to the choir, but it's superbly delivered humour has the potential to invite in all Australians who appreciate a laugh.
- Garry Westmore