White Construction of Black Identity in Australian Films about Aborigines

Article excerpt

This paper will explore two issues relating to black identity in four Australian feature films in which Aborigines play an important role. The issues to be considered are, first, how do the white English and Australian makers of these films construct Aboriginal identity, and second,,.what is the ideological significance of this construction for blacks within the framework of Australian society?

For black people, questions of identity and cultural image are not just matters of artistic concern. They are political questions insofar as definitions and perceptions of identity influence race and power relations. As Eve Fesl points out, white Australia has used race defamation to justify a range of attacks on and disruptive policies towards Aboriginal people. Race defamation includes derogatory stereotypes and abusive and contemptuous language, based on the ideology that the Aboriginal race, like other black races, is intellectually and culturally deficient, innately inferior to the dynamic and sophisticated Caucasian race and peoples, but having the possibility of being "civilised," "christianised" or "trained."' The majority of Aborigines, like the majority of blacks in most of the countries of the African diaspora, are still in the desperate, oppressed situation born of colonial conquest and racism. Far more than any other group in Australia, they experience poverty and discrimination in employment and education, health, housing, the legal system and the media, in spite of the attempts of white liberalism to construct for them a safety net of welfare handouts.2

Growing up black in the British colonial Caribbean in the 1950s and 60s, I experienced the same racial and cultural defamation, and political oppression of Caribbean people, but it was not until I was an adult that I understood these things. I gradually became aware of what constituted Anglo-Saxon cultural contempt and how this could engender the psychologically brutual outcomes of apathy, hopelessness or aggressiveness in black people.3 Now, living in Australia, I am experiencing an educational and cultural system which in my view still perpetrates Eurocentric and racist stereotypes of black-white relationships through textbooks and curricula, literature, and cinema and other media.4 An important question is whether Aboriginal suffering at the hands of white policy has left them in the psychologically victimised situation of a colonised people "in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality.5 Acccounts by Aborigines of their search to redefine their experience and to reclaim their cultural identity6 suggest that they too are psychological victims striving to find the way to challenge and overcome their oppression. Since cinema vividly expresses and powerfully influences social perception, an understanding of its construction of Aboriginality within inter-racial relationships can play an important part in this challenge. For blacks, penetrating dominant white definitions of the inter-racial situation is vital to that self-knowledge which is the basis of changing their situation.

It was not until the 1950s that there was a focus on Aboriginal characters in conventional feature films (as opposed to documentary and ethnographic films). Before this, feature films showed Aborigines only as incidental figures bestowing "Australianness" to the landscape of outback dramas.7 My paper will explore how four films represent certain aspects of the colonial white assault on black identity and cultural image, arguing that they reflect the contradictory discourse of white liberalism which is capable of condemning and at the same time perpetuating racism and racist stereotypes in one and the same artistic mode.

The four feature films chosen for analysis illustrate two ways which the dominant culture has used in depicting its interaction with the group which it subordinated. The first way, adopted by Ralph Smart's film Bitter Springs (1950) and Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout (1971)8, is to focus upon the story of the whites, who react to Aboriginal people as incidents in their lives. …