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‘The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’ (1978): An unnerving historical drama on the dehumanization of aboriginals

By Arun Kumar

Fred Schepisi is one of the leading directors of the Australian New Wave cinema – a movement kicked off between early 1970s and flourished with the help of Australian Film Commission (established in 1975) up until the early mid-1980s. From Ted Kotcheff’s disturbing outback thriller Wake in Fright (1971), Nicolas Roeg’s hypnotic masterpiece Walkabout (1971) to George Miller’s Mad Max franchise and John Duigan’s sensitive coming-of-age tale, The Year My Voice Broke (1987), the images of splendor and carnage evoked the distinct ‘Australianness’. This renaissance era in Australian cinema didn’t adapt a particular trademark cinematic style (similar to Czech New Wave of the 1960s or Romanian New Wave of the 2000s). These narratives, set in sun-kissed and dust-strewn landscapes, brought upon raw, realistic, and character-driven dramas, which lashed out at Anglo-conformist Australia and deeply reflected on the systemic ostracization of the Aborigines (indigenous Australians). Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave), Ken Hannam (Sunday Too Far Away), Philip Noyce (Newsfront), Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant, Puberty Blues), Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career) were some of the prominent film-makers of the movement alongside Fred Schepisi.

Mr. Schepisi’s debut feature The Devil’s Playground (1976) was a semi-autobiographical tale of a boy attending Roman Catholic boys’ school, coming to terms with religion and sexuality. Australian novelist and ex-seminarian Thomas Keneally (better known for his 1982 book Schindler’s Ark) appeared in the film as Father Marshall, delivering one thunderous sermon to the boys. For his second feature, Schepisi opted to adapt Keneally’s 1972 Booker-Prize shortlisted novel, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Joan Lindsay was another important Australian writer whose 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock was turned into movie by Peter Weir). Both Joan Lindsay and Thomas Keneally’s famous novels were based on real-life incidents that happened at the turn of the nineteenth century. Keneally’s Jimme Blacksmith is a fictional reconstruction of Jimmie Governor, a half-caste Aboriginal man, who embarked upon a path of grim revenge after suffering injustices at the hands of dominant Anglo-Australians. Schepisi financed much of the production, further seeking help from the Australian Film Commission and the Victorian Film Commission. For its time, the film was considered to be the biggest budget film made in Australia (at $1.2 million). Screened at 1978 Cannes (nominated for Palme d’Or), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith garnered unequivocally positive reviews, from both international and domestic press (film’s violence however received backlash in certain quarters). Nevertheless, the film wasn’t a great commercial success. On hindsight, Jimmie Blacksmith still remains as one of the most daring and powerful Australian cinema ever made.  Mr. Schepisi later worked in Australia as well as in Hollywood, consistently making fine dramas: Evil Angels (1988), Six Degrees of Separation (1993), Roxanne (1987), etc.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith provides a harrowing film experience as it seeks to scrutinize the inherent hypocrisy and prejudices held within a colonial society, from the perspective of a part Aboriginal young man. Born to an Aboriginal mother and a White father, Jimmie (Tommy Lewis) is perceived as the product of both colonial fear and desire. He is raised by a Methodist preacher Neville (Jack Thompson) and his wife Martha, who wants Jimmie to be part of New Australia and curb him from regressing to allegedly ‘primitive’ ways of the aborigines. His aboriginal roots are persistently thrown at him as a form of insult. By 1886, the colonial government passes the Half-Caste Act in Australian Parliament which gives unbridled powers over the lives of Aboriginal people. Everything from residence, job, and marriage in the aborigine communities (which has already suffered from drinking, drug problems and mental health) are strictly controlled by the act. It is alleged to help assimilate the ‘feral’ people into the ‘civilized’ western society. The utter inhumanity of the act leads to the spiraling down of the indigenous community.

In 1900, when Australia becomes a federation independent of the UK, Jimme feels himself to be an outsider among the drinking and cavorting aborigine race. But he isn’t welcomed into the White world too. Jimmie works for wealthy landowners, building fences for their sprawling properties and yet denied proper full-time wages. He goes from one White farmer to another, always getting the same treatment and he takes the insults with big, appeasing smiles. When a White girl at the estate farm becomes pregnant, with whom Jimmie has a sexual relationship, Jimmie marries her and eagerly accepts the responsibility of a family man. His new employer Mr. Newby initially seems less cruel than other Anglo people, but Newby’s wife and daughters frown upon the idea of a black man marrying a White girl. Soon, the couple’s child is born and it becomes perfectly evident that it’s not Jimmy’s son. But he decides to support his wife and her child. However, when Jimmie’s aboriginal half-brother Mort and uncle arrive at his shack, Newby disapproves their gathering and holds back the groceries that should be given for services rendered. Boiling with rage and burdened by despair, Jimmie Blacksmith knocks on Newby’s doors, only to be casually dismissed by the wife & daughters. Jimmie then falls into the chasm of insanity and does a repulsive and purely evil thing. Thus begins a terrible murderous rampage. Schepisi’s film nowhere justifies the lines Jimmie crosses to become a bloodthirsty killing machine. At the same time, he acutely demonstrates the moral complexities and the inherent contempt of oppressive Anglo societies that’s involved in creating such problematic events.

The gorgeous yet menacing Australian landscape prominently features in the new wave cinema. In this film too, director Schepisi (vividly filmed by Ian Baker) often frames Jimmie in long shots, using the wide expanse to showcase his ostracized, homeless or landless status. Similar to the shots of wild life in Wake in Fright and Walkabout, Schepisi’s unflinching close-up shots of repelling reptiles adds to the atmosphere’s violent, menacing nature. The land and Jimmie’s place in it consistently echoes or forbodes the protagonist’s path towards rampage. In few early scenes, we see Jimmie’s tender and desirous side unfurling inside closed quarters. However, gradually the social outcast status heaped upon him by the Whites permeates even through these constrained spaces so that he no more has a space to seek solace. In fact, Jimmie’s pivotal moment of insanity occurs after his private space is fully invaded.

The unforgettable violent scene, half-way into the movie, is brilliantly staged, making us wince from the sudden explosion of violence without presenting it in a cathartic or cartoonish manner. Moreover, the brutal slaying is not shown as a premediated act of rebellion and more as an unanticipated breakdown. In this scene, Schepisi’s camera also closely observes the spilled water and broken eggs, literally reflecting the nature of the conflict (blood spilled over some food). In the second-half as Jimmie and Mort go on the run, Schepisi often cuts to scenes portraying public reaction of the case, which is a device that may have worked well in a book, but comes off a little heavy-handed in the movie (the same could be said for the teacher subplot). Nevertheless, the subtle direction and terrific performances mostly push us to overlook the writing flaws. Lewis, an untrained actor, is said to be spotted at Melbourne airport by Schepisi and his ex-wife. As Jimmie, he offers a haunting performance. We don’t exactly condone Lewis’ character’s action, although we empathize for his plight. We feel sad over how the Whites’ prejudiced view (of Jimmie as a savage) gets finally proven and publicized so as to strengthen their oppression of the Aborigines. Schepisi ends the narrative with a tight shot of Jimmie seen through the hole in his jail cell, a symbol of the collective mistreatment of aboriginal tribes in the hands of White establishment.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (117 minutes) offers a genuinely powerful and unforgettable commentary on the dangers of cultural appropriation and unfathomable brutality of colonial occupation. Pulsing with rage the film raises discomfiting questions about an unjust and intolerant society.

Bio:
Arun Kumar is a Software professional with an unbridled passion for the world of cinema and books. He believes in an enriching film culture – from watching great cinema to engaging with its connoisseurs. Currently, he blogs at Passion for Moviesand Passion for Books.

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