The United States has no monopoly on the historical (or current) mistreatment of its darker-skinned residents — humans being what they are, the majority will always subjugate the minority and those perceived to be weaker — and world cinema continues to be a gateway into our understanding of past sins in the hope that future ones can be avoided. Australia has a particularly rough relationship with its indigenous peoples that, like America’s, continues to this day, and they’re furthering an awareness of it through films like The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) and The Tracker (2002). And if you double feature the two this is the exact order they should be viewed in if you’re hoping to avoid a spiral of depression.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)
Jimmie Blacksmith is a young Aboriginal man raised by a stern minister in turn of the century Australia. Whites look down on his kind in general, but he avoids much of that as a child as he’s raised like one of them. The abuse is all around, though, from verbal slights to physical violence, and it’s a reality he can’t avoid forever. A day finally comes where he’s experienced and witnessed enough, and people will pay at the wrong end of his ax.
Fred Shepisi’s (Roxanne) adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s (Schindler’s List) novel is a grim affair. The harsh racism and brutal mistreatment of Australia’s indigenous people is hard to bear, and at just over two hours the film delivers quite a bit of it. Jimmie and those like him endure mountains of abuse — you can’t help but feel vile and complicit as it unfolds — and when he finally snaps and exerts revenge it’s with such somber attrition that it lacks catharsis. It’s just depressingly sad all around.
The cast is strong throughout, but Tommy Lewis in particular does tremendous work as Jimmie. His pain is visible, but he works to hide it behind a mask of complacency and acceptance. His eyes can’t lie, though, and even as he’s smiling the rage is evident. Once he shifts into aggression of his own his performance becomes more intense and more devastating. The entirety is a trying experience akin to the most harrowing and brutal of films capturing the misery of the slavery experience here in the States. Still, the horror comes with a dark beauty of a film capturing the world at its worst.
Umbrella’s Blu-ray is all-region and playable in the US, and it includes an introduction from Schepisi, a trailer, a stills gallery, and the following extras.
- Commentary with Fred Shepisi
- A Conversation with Fred Shepisi & Ian Baker [1:04:01]
- Melbourne Premiere from Willesee at Seven, June 1978 [6:00]
- Celluloid Gypsies: Making Jimmie Blacksmith [36:21]
- Interview with Tommy Lewis (2008) [25:33]
- 2008 Melbourne International Film Festival Q&A with Fred Shepisi & Geoffrey Rush [34:05]
- Making Us Blacksmiths – Casting Leads Tommy Lewis & Freddy Reynolds [10:23]
Buy The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith on region-free Blu-ray from Amazon.
The Tracker (2002)
An Aboriginal man has been accused of killing a white woman in early 20th century Australia. He’s on the run, but four men are on his trail. Three of them are whites looking to bring him to trial — and execution — but the fourth is an Aboriginal himself. He’s the tracker, and while they wouldn’t admit it they’re following his lead. Fools.
This is a brilliant piece of cinema that shows a mastery of tone that so few movies even attempt let alone attain. The dark reality of life is evident early as the white men show their disdain for the blacks while viewing them as inferior, and one way to survive life for an Aboriginal is to bow their head and obey the white man’s every order. The Tracker (David Gulpilil) learned this at an early age, and as a man in his late forties he’s rarely strayed from the course, but after he witnesses the men slaughter a group of blacks for no reason other than opportunity he decides enough is enough. It’s a fantastically nuanced turn that (as with Jimmie above) sees him present a face to the men that’s ultimately deceptive. He’s the tracker, they’re relying on him, and he knows it.
Gulpilil gives a masterclass in acting here with a character who seems at first to be in the white man’s pocket, but as things progress the truth comes clear. The twinkle in his eye reveals he’s more than one step ahead, and while he’s content playing their game that changes after the massacre. There’s pain there too, but the previously mentioned tonal control creates a balance that brings unexpected levity and pitch black humor to the suffering. It’s a good pairing with The Dressmaker (2015) in that both are unlikely revenge tales executed with absolute wit and beauty amid the pain. It hurts early on, but it’s an absolute joy in the back half.
Umbrella’s recent Blu-ray brings the film home with a new 4K scan & restoration, and it looks gorgeous. It’s region-free (despite the region B labeling) and comes loaded with the following special features.
- David Gulpiul: “I Remember…” [10:16]
- Interview with Rold de Heer & David Stratton from The Movie Show [9:28]
- Outtakes [15:16] – “The first part of this could be called the David Gulpiul blooper reel…”
- Interviews on Location [36:05]
- Peter Coad [16:40] – The artist behind the film’s paintings offers a glimpse into his process and the production.
- 59th Venice International Film Festival, 2002 [6:00]
- World Premiere Adelaide Festival of Arts, 2002 [11:21]
- Melbourne International Film Festival, 2002 [7:13]
- IF Awards, 2002 [8:28]
- AFI Awards, 2002 [1:10]
- Archie Roach Alien Invasion Music Clip [4:53]
The Tracker is currently only available as a region-free import.
Related Topics: Home Video