With all due respect to Women’s History Month, I’m not quite ready to move on from February’s all-too-brief celebration.
My concept of Australia was always shaped by basic truths — its upside-down night sky; idiosyncratic wildlife; shady mentions in the movie Oliver! (1968); breathtaking Great Barrier Reef; the “a” word used to refer to the country’s indigenous peoples.
The only truth that mattered when I eventually visited Oceania, however, was how warmly I was received by native Australians; acknowledged in a way that was both unexpected and astonishing. I was SEEN. Greeted. Welcomed.
On multiple occasions, Aboriginal people matter-of-factly referred to themselves as Black, and I found that puzzling. I was shook.
Why would brown folks whose experiences more closely resembled that of Native Americans and Commonwealth First Nations lean into blackness? Especially when African descendants in the Americas are doing the opposite — perpetuating internalized anti-blackness by rejecting, denying, euphemizing, renaming or bleaching it away? Not to mention the cultural currency of claiming “native” or “American Indian” lineage to enhance ancestral profiles — even when no such link exists.
How was I not aware Australian blackness was a thing? Where was the “Blackfella” experience in movies during the Aussie film heyday (i.e., Strictly Ballroom (1992), Muriel’s Wedding (1994), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), etc.)? Why did I assume “Black” belonged exclusively to the African diaspora?
American tradition perpetuates the “one-drop” rule; entire branches of families with the ability to “pass” for white did/do, willingly rejecting the historical burden of Black identity in the quest for the privileges of whiteness.
Meanwhile, Australia is still reckoning with its reprehensible history of “stolen generations” — state-sanctioned family separation of mixed-race indigenous children in order to erase the culture and force assimilation into white Australian society. It’s our world turned upside down.
I couldn’t let another Black History Month go by without recognizing our brethren and sistren Down Under. As movies portraying Aboriginal life become more readily available via streaming services, it’s time to shine a light on these rich, complex stories. Keep the celebration going with these film suggestions as a window into the Black Australian experience.
A quiet, meditative road story featuring two first-time actors. Blond, light-skinned Lena (Dannielle Hall) has left her troubled Aboriginal mother and dead-end town to find her absent Irish dad; Vaughn (Damian Pitt, d. 2009) has escaped his long-time low security lockup facility to visit his dying mother, when their circumstances intersect.
Beneath Clouds is available to stream on Tubi.
A coming-of-age, on-the-road musical based on a 1990 stage production. A fan favorite when it screened out of competition at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Musical comedy-drama about an Indigenous Australian girl group hired to sing for American troops during the Vietnam War. Loosely based on a true story.
A beautiful, arresting drama about a young Aboriginal man’s journey to manhood — told exclusively in dance. First-time helmer, choreographer Stephen Page, directs Sydney-based Bangarra Dance Theatre.
A charming rom-com about runaway brides and the comfort of going home.
Extra: Rabbit-Proof Fence is a “based on a true story” exploration of the child removal policy enacted by the Australian government from 1905 through the early 1970s.