Liam examines a few positive filmic representations of racial minorities, in an attempt to demonstrate how mainstream media can better represent minorities.
In the ’80s comedy Soul Man, a white college student pretends he’s black (specifically African-American) so he can get a scholarship. The whole movie is essentially one big blackface gag except it’s not really played for laughs.
At the end of the film the blackface student is found out and is being reprimanded (by the voice of Luke Skywalker’s dad, no less!), and there’s a very interesting exchange:
Black College Teacher: “…you’ve learned what it feels like to be black.”
Blackface Student: “No sir.”
Black College Teacher: “Beg your pardon?”
Blackface Student: “I don’t really know what it feels like, sir. If I didn’t like it, I could always get out. It’s not the same, sir.”
Black College teacher: “You’ve learned a great deal more than I thought.”
I was 11 when I saw Soul Man. I don’t remember much else about the movie, but that part stuck with me for life.
See, when you’re a minority (such as an Australian Aboriginal like me) it doesn’t take you too long to realise that mainstream media doesn’t really hold much for you. For an example of what I’m talking about, think of the last time you heard a didgeridoo in a film that wasn’t audio shorthand for ‘magic is happening or whatever’.
Conversely, if you’re not in a minority group then it can be difficult to know how (or even whether) to address certain issues or even if it’s okay to laugh at certain jokes.
Here’s a good rule of thumb for that: If you don’t know if it’s okay to laugh, then it probably isn’t. And that goes double for us minorities in this new world where white-bashing is the new, uh, black.
My point is that if you think about it, both of these issues arise from the same question: How can the mainstream represent minorities in a meaningful and ethical manner?
Sometimes the problem is that the question isn’t asked. Sometimes the problem is that it isn’t answered.
Sometimes the problem is that even though people have the best intentions they still fail to be racially sensitive because they don’t have experience being a minority.
I think a great example of this might be the recent Aussie sci-fi film Occupation. I found the trailer very exciting and it filled me with national pride (THE GOOD KIND), but something vaguely bugged me about it. See if you can figure out what it was:
I couldn’t help but notice the lack of Aboriginal cast and crew (and yes I did indeed do a whole bunch of research to qualify that statement). Curiously, there’s a Maori actor on the cast – Boba Fett’s dad, no less! – but no blackfullahs.
Why does that matter?
Well, considering that the First Fleet wasn’t invited and has never paid rent, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Australia is still ‘occupied’ by the colonials.
I also don’t think that’s a problem in and of itself (just look at all these hospitals!) but let’s not pretend our shared national past is all beer and skittles, okay?
I feel as though all of this makes the title of a film called Occupation especially problematic, particularly if they don’t address this issue – which they don’t.
To be clear, I’m certainly not saying that SparkeFilms (the makers of Occupation) is under any obligation to insert people of colour in roles where they don’t belong. Nobody wants that, and if they do want that then they’re missing the point completely.
I’m simply saying that given the title and content of the film it would have been nice to have seen this whole ‘uninvited settlers’ issue addressed.
For instance, a great twist might have been that the aliens in Occupation were actually immortal Ancient Aboriginals who’d recently returned home from a long cosmic journey only to find their old home is very different now.
This isn’t how it ends – but can you imagine the layers of meaning that would have given every single line in the film? Now there’s a movie that’d bear a repeat viewing, am I right?
But as I said, I’m not here to tell SparkeFilms how to do their job. They seem to be doing fine without my input, and more power to them I say!
But just on the off-chance that we have any budding filmmakers (or even some active ones) reading, let’s have a look at a few films which address some of the issues raised by racial minorities in a meaningful and ethical manner.
We’ll do that in order of release, because why not, eh?
What this nailed: Accurately portraying tribal law and showing the fact that Aboriginals act like other humans (at a time when no other film did).
Please also note that it was made so long ago that many things about it are very problematic by modern standards, but it’s still an honest film.
Jedda is what they call ‘assimilated’, which means that she’s a member of the Borg from Star Trek.
Wait, let me try that again. Also: spoilers for a 70-year-old movie.
Jedda is an assimilated Aboriginal, which means that she can ‘fit in’ with western society. This is because she was raised by whites who kept all knowledge of her birth culture hidden from her.
Marbuck is a tribesman who entices the unwary Jedda to his camp one night, at which point he kidnaps her.
Marbuck takes her back to his band to marry her. However, they forbid him to marry her because she’s from the wrong part of Australia – the old mob were sticklers for that kind of thing, and yes that probably is a little bigoted of them in a weird way, but my Aboriginal father (my mother is Caucasian) assures me that it was done this way to keep the peace.
Anyway, Marbuck then takes her into taboo lands, which is the closest thing to a jail that blackfullahs had: this is where the outcasts were exiled to, so if there was anyone there they were probably murderers and/or rapists. Best case scenario, you might run into a thief, or maybe a political exile. So, basically, ‘Arkham City but without any buildings’.
To cut a long story very short, the elders psyche out Marbuck (because they got in his head before he left his band) so he commits suicide and takes Jedda with him, murdering her by proxy.
The reason I appreciate this amazingly depressing film so much is that the relationships and the events that happen because of them resonate with me deeply.
There are entire families/bands that have been assimilated. I think it’s safe to say that my mob is one of them.
Given this, Marbuck represents an instinctive longing for a past that, frankly, I don’t think was much chop from a civil rights point of view. Say what you want about modern Australia, but at least I don’t get sent to ‘Murderer/Rapist Survival Prison’ for not wanting to be religious, or whatever.
The thing I like the most about this film, however, is how honest it is.
If aliens ever kidnap you and they want to know about Aboriginals, get them to download Jedda into their holo-room or whatever aliens have, I don’t know these things. Also, make sure you tell them that not all Aboriginal bands have the exact same laws and beliefs, but still show them Jedda.
Fun Fact: Jedda was the first colour feature-film to be made in Australia but the trailer was black-and-white.
Lilo and Stitch
What this nailed: The struggle to fit into mainstream society and yet remain true to your culture.
If you’re anything like me, then you might be tempted to roll your eyes at the inclusion of this entry and sarcastically say something like “Oh yes, it’s quite common for natives to have to deal with destructive aliens” – and then stare at the floor as you realise what you’ve just said. Fortunately for both of us, I won’t be plucking at that particular thread here.
Set in Hawaii, Lilo and Stitch is ostensibly the story of Lilo (a young Hawaiian girl) and Stitch (a young alien experiment).
However, to me, it’s the story of Nani (Lilo’s older sister and primary caregiver) and Lilo.
It’s the story of a Hawaiian girl who’s raising her Hawaiian sister so that the family can stay together, even though the government wants to take Lilo away.
It’s the story of a Hawaiian family experiencing severe financial and emotional hardship but also finding strength in their traditions, such as when Nani sings the song Aloha ‘Oe to help Lilo accept her government-issued fate.
Perhaps it’s because they don’t wedge in a romance plot, but the story has time to address these issues, and they don’t pull any punches about it either.
For instance, the secondary antagonist Mr Bubbles (literally) represents the US government.
“Oh but Liam,” I hear you say, above the sound of my Elvis records. “Mr Bubbles has brown skin and is therefore presumably from Hawaii himself.”
Erm – no.
According to his Disney Wiki page, he’s ex-CIA – so he’s presumably African-American, and also you and I are both presumably accidentally racist (because I thought he was Hawaiian too).
Besides, even if he was Hawaiian, what difference would that make? He’d still have a job to do.
Do white social workers say to white caregivers ‘Hey, I know I’m supposed to take your kid away, but we’re both white so I won’t, it’s cool’?
I mean, it’s almost like race doesn’t matter sometimes.
Red Dog: True Blue
What this nailed: It shows Australian Aboriginals as people who are fiercely spiritual and yet still practical, and it shows filmmakers that Indigenous consultation can help create a story that doesn’t accidentally include half-truths.
I had a very weird time with this film going into it. I very nearly didn’t watch it.
See, the first actor whose voice appears onscreen is an Englishman who’s playing an Australian. This alone put me in a very strange headspace.
The reason this bothered me is simple: Non-Australians can’t seem to do an Australian accent convincingly, and I for one am kind of offended that they don’t just hire an Australian actor instead.
Well, I mean – I say that, but – well…
The actor was Jason Isaacs who you might know as Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter series (Draco Malfoy’s dad, no less!), or maybe as Captain Lorca from Star Trek: Discovery – or maybe from both if you’re a huge nerd, you giant nerd you.
Jason Isaacs has, by far, the best Australian accent of any non-Australian actor I’ve ever heard in my life, and I have to admit that I was wrong: turns out there’s exactly one non-Australian actor that can perform it. If you watched that trailer up there, then you heard it yourself.
So I gave the film a free pass on that front because at least the guy was prepared to do the right thing and represent us properly.
I will assume that all you non-minorities saw exactly what I did there, and I will move on.
Red Dog: True Blue (a prequel to Red Dog) is the story of a boy and his dog. Most of the film takes place on a cattle station in the late ’60s.
I was initially surprised at the respect shown towards the Aboriginals in the story, especially given the time period it’s set in. I guess it’s easy to forget that there’ve been plenty of non-racist people around long before political correctness set in and confused us all.
Anyway, the youngest and most talkative of the Aboriginals was a jackaroo named Taylor, and he served as the mouthpiece for the Indigenous perspective of the film.
For instance, he eventually states his case for Traditional Ownership of the land to the young protagonist and then lets it sit. He doesn’t harp on about it, but he doesn’t fail to address it either.
Further, he’s the one who explains why a certain cave has a strange feeling attached to it, and he does it in a way that rings true to me (based on the stories that my father told me as a youngster).
This was where I thought the film would lose me.
See, there’s a certain primal logic to the collection of superstitions that form the Aboriginal religions (it’s slightly different for each mob), which is probably best described as ‘nature-based ancestor worship’.
As much as I respect my ancestors on both sides of my heritage, I have no use for either of their spiritual chicanery – I’m lucky in that way because I get to be twice the atheist most folks do.
But even that (i.e. the spiritual malarky) was well done!
The entire third act of the film may have happened because of Aboriginal Magic – or it may have all been a coincidence. The film wisely never offers any sort of answer itself, leaving the viewer to ponder what actually happened.
At one stage, Taylor is talking about going on a walkabout (an annual cross-country jaunt performed by traditional Aboriginals). The protagonist mentions that’ll take Taylor a long time, but Taylor just says something along the lines of ‘What are you, crazy? I’m taking the ute!’
This perfectly characterises the Aboriginal way of life in the modern world: The old ways might still need to be observed where possible, but that’s no reason to be a Luddite.
I myself would much rather type this article out and have it available to everyone on the internet than go door to door reciting it, for instance.
What this nailed: Hiring local Indigenous crew members. Also, it was great to hear a New Zealand accent in a major film.
Yes, I was surprised to see this film on the list, too.
So, maybe there weren’t any Australian Aboriginals onscreen, but when Taika Waititi (the Maori director of the film) found out he was shooting in Australia he went out of his way to hire Aboriginal crew members. You know, the behind-the-scenes people, like gaffers and craft services and all that lovely stuff.
I feel like I should expand on this entry, but what more is there to say, really?
Well, I could also point out that Thor: Ragnarok was filmed in Australia at the request of Chris Hemsworth, who had nothing but praise for the cast AND crew.
Aboriginal film crews: Literally good enough for Hollywood.
What can we learn from these films?
One of the things that makes these modern times so confusing is that we don’t have any kind of guidebook or roadmap for how to behave in certain situations. Is this joke okay? Is that joke okay? Is not making jokes at all okay? What’s racist? What isn’t? Who do I ask?
I don’t presume to provide any actual answers in this article, beyond ‘be sensitive to racial minorities’ which is no answer at all really because most people are already trying to do that.
But the films mentioned here contain valuable answers – even if they aren’t the specific answers we’re looking for.
Jedda show us that mainstream films can accurately portray the complex and ancient Aboriginal legal system as well as other parts of the traditional culture. All that’s required is a little research or, ideally, consultation.
Lilo and Stitch shows us realistic social pressures face by Indigenous people worldwide and does so in a fairly breezy manner while still being impactful. It also shows us that, like most other humans, family is very important to Indigenous people.
Red Dog: True Blue shows us once again the benefits of Indigenous consultation, and it also does a great job of portraying the fact that plenty of mixed-race (including Caucasian) work crews existed long before the phrase ‘diversity hire’ appeared. It also told a story which existed alongside Aboriginal Spirituality, instead of ignoring it or misunderstanding it.
Thor: Ragnarok shows us that hiring Indigenous film crews (among other possible hires) is a wonderful way to create not just goodwill, but also publicity. It also serves as an excellent reminder that mainstream media can only do so much there (because, after all, majority rules) and so it’s on us minorities to try and help each other where we can. A solo voice (like mine here in this article) can be loud and clear, but it can’t compare to a choir. If we sing together, maybe our voices can be more clearly heard.
And finally, Occupation makes us ask some very interesting questions, such as ‘considering Australia’s history, is the title culturally insensitive?’. Conversely (and just as importantly) it also makes us ask ‘how can we know when political correctness is helping us or hindering us’?
I honestly don’t think the answers are anywhere near as important as the dialogue that the questions can start.
So, I hope you’ll join me in celebrating all the films examined in this article. I’m thankful for their additions to the ongoing discussions of racial issues that we all need to take part in.
If you’re a filmmaker who wants to hire indigenous folks for cast or crew, or maybe even just wants to make sure that they’re being respectful – why not contact Screen Australia like Taika Waititi did?
Oh, and if you’re from SparkeFilms, I know one particular blackfullah who’d be more than happy to appear in the next Occupation film – as long as he gets to say something along of the lines of ‘Dammit! AGAIN? What is this country, a friggin’ invasion magnet or something?’
It’s fine if everyone onscreen looks at me – uh, I mean ‘him’ – with a blistering ‘Don’t you think that’s a bit much?’ expression on their face – because then at least it’s been addressed.
I mean – that’s all I’m asking, really.
If you enjoyed the filmmaking aspects of this article, then why not check out this article about why Citizen Kane is considered to be the best film ever made or this article about 3 iconic silent films? Or, alternatively, if you enjoyed reading about the cultural issues faced by modern Australian Aboriginals, then why not check out this article by the same author about why he didn’t feel comfortable writing about the Black Panther movie?