Reviews and notes
1978 Cannes, Toronto
One of the most important films in all of Australian cinema, and perhaps the key critical work of that country’s internationally acclaimed film movement of the 1970s, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
is nothing short of a masterpiece – a bracing and emotionally wrenching study of the effects of institutionalised racism and colonialism on a land’s indigenous peoples, and an unflinching look at the repercussions of violence for both aggressors and victims. Based on the early 20th-century exploits of Jimmy Governor, Jimmie Blacksmith
follows its title character, a half-Aboriginal, half-white young man attempting to make his way as a farmhand, but facing only prejudice and deception from society. When the parentage of his child is called into question and he is further robbed by his white employers, Jimmie’s barely suppressed rage explodes, triggering a wave of violence that would shock a nation. Directed by Fred Schepisi (Six Degrees of Separation
) from a Booker-nominated novel by Thomas Keneally (Schindler’s List
), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
stands alongside The Harder They Come
and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song
as one of the most powerful 1970s cinema explorations of rebellion and uprising, and the costs that are paid on both sides. Called “the one great Australian film that I have seen” by Pauline Kael, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
is a powerful experience.
- Masters of Cinema.
In Tasmania they used to run Aborigines off the cliffs. In New South Wales they herded them together and shot them like rabbits. It is only fairly recently that the facts of this genocide have impinged on the Australian consciousness; the much vaunted new Australian cinema, trading on nostalgia for a history made by whites, has barely scratched the surface. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
is the first major Australian feature to treat the 'problem' of the Aborigine as more than exotic cultural baggage. Nominally, it is about a spontaneous act of violence, the murder of whites by a half-blood Aborigine. But its true centre is the slow destruction of a race.
The story, adapted by director Fred Schepisi from Thomas Keneally's novel, derives from fact. In 1900, when the Australian states were about to unite in federation, an Aborigine went on the rampage in the farmlands of New South Wales, murdering seven whites and eluding capture for months before he was finally tracked down and hanged. Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis) is a mission black, a half-caste reared by a Methodist minister and his wife. He is educated in the ways of the whites, and accepts the values they have imposed on him. He wants a job, money, a piece of property. Jimmie Blacksmith's tragedy is to be caught between two worlds. In a prologue, Schepisi has indicated (signposted rather — not for the only time in the film the antitheses are telegraphed) the aboriginal heritage which Jimmie will never be able to slough off. A tribal initiation ritual has more call on Jimmie than his place in a Christian choir; later he will be told by a white man that there is too much Christian in him. But for Jimmie's white mentors, his only salvation is to be assimilated into the culture of the new Australians.
So Jimmie tries. He gets work as an itinerant farm labourer, making picket fences for the new settlers. He is anxious to please, works hard and well, obsequiously tolerates the veiled abuse. He is embarrassed to be joined by his brother Mort (Freddy Reynolds), a full Aborigine with an easygoing manner and a habit of bursting into laughter. Schepisi takes some time to establish Jimmie's character and the conflict of wills within him. The squalid degradation of the aboriginal settlements, where men 'lend' their wives for the white man's secret pleasure, is juxtaposed with Jimmie's education in the real ways of the world he aspires to. He is systematically cheated by his employers. His swearing, a self-conscious token of his worldliness, earns him a rebuke for trespassing on prohibited territory. He joins the police as a stable hand and tracker, and is told by his superior Farrell (Ray Barrett) that Federation will make no difference to 'black bastards' like him: 'You'll still have the same rights — none.' Jimmie is bemused, having picked up the notion that Federation is a good thing.
The contradictions accumulate, signalled in Schepisi's script with perhaps too close an eye on the balance of the narrative. It is while he is with the police that Jimmie's acquiescence in the white man's determination to keep him in his place is first seriously put to the test, when he is instrumental in the arrest of an Aborigine who is sadistically assaulted by Farrell and later 'found' hanged in his cell. If anything, the experience strengthens Jimmie's will to be accepted: he marries a white woman (Angela Punch), believing her to be pregnant by him, and proudly builds them a home on the farm where he now works. But when the baby is born, white and obviously not his, the apparent tolerance of his employer's family, the Newbys, is revealed as an attempt to return Jimmie to his place outside the familial fold. The cumulative offence spills out in an act of retribution, as Jimmie takes an axe to the Newby women.
The violence is sudden and shocking, but properly placed by Schepisi's evident concern for structural detail. Jimmie's explanation to his stunned brother - 'I declared war' - echoes an earlier scene in which he has heard the phrase used by whites in a conversation about the Boer War. But the film denies any interpretation of Jimmie's act as instinctive or culturally sanctioned. When Mort later wounds a woman who levels a gun at him, he apologises to her, and he is horrified when Jimmie cold-bloodedly shoots a woman and her child. Jimmie is beyond redemption, having tried and failed to cross an impossible boundary. It is Mort, less caught between cultures, who helps the asthmatic schoolteacher taken by the brothers as a hostage, and it is Mort who abandons the veneer of 'civilisation' and accepts the fate enjoined by his tribal knowledge. In the last of the film's too frequent ironies, Jimmie is caught when he takes refuge in a convent.
A flock of birds soars behind the final credits, an aboriginal totem which was evidently accidentally contrived. And, inevitably perhaps, it is when it deals directly with its aboriginal subtext that the film is least sure of itself. The Panavision vistas of the second half, when the brothers are on the run in the mountains and the rain forests, are punctuated by aboriginal icons and close-ups of plants and animals which self-consciously announce their point about the Aborigine's communion with the earth (Walkabout
did this just as self-consciously, but integrally). These sequences betray the slight unsteadiness of narrative structure which was evident also in Schepisi's first feature, The Devil's Playground
. But they don't seriously undermine the film. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
is a big film intended for a big audience. On its own terms, it is a powerful indictment of the insidious, pervasive canker of white racism.
- David Wilson, Sight & Sound, Spring 1979.
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