(James Ricketson, Australia, 1991)


Adapted from Archie Weller’s novel Day of the Dog, Blackfellas tells a story of the Nyungar people in Perth.

Doug (John Moore), “Dooligan the hooligan” to his mates, is released from jail and tries to go straight. The path is not easy, for Doug must grapple with a drunken father (Jack Charles), a thieving, promiscuous girlfriend (Jaylene Riley), and especially his wild best friend Floyd (David Ngoombujarra). Doug and Floyd are brothers a little like Cain and Abel, or Keitel and De Niro in Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973).

Film critics and filmmakers of a radical persuasion have railed against screen realism since the ’60s, arguing that it promotes a soppily humanist, largely uncritical view of social conditions. In the case of Blackfellas, this prognosis was sadly borne out by the favourable press, reviewers falling over themselves to praise the film’s “compassion”, its “universal” relevance, and the insight it offers privileged whites into the Aboriginal “problem”.

Yet, as Mudrooroo Nyoongah strongly argues in the media journal Continuum, Blackfellas “supports the various media stereotypes against which Nyungars and others were protesting and seeking to elucidate and change”. The film never gets beyond being a romantic drama of “human nature”, presenting Aborigines struggling to overcome their “deviant” tendencies for the sake of individual happiness and a place in the sun.

Of course, there are many “social conscience” movies that are realist, even reactionary, but which become interesting once they explode with the force of their own contradictions (like Oliver Stone’s films). This one, however, is drearily directed by James Ricketson in the worst telemovie style. Neither the ‘human’ scenes of love and camaraderie nor the ‘problem’ scenes of theft and domestic violence have any power or poetry.

Blackfellas may be a little rawer than Beresford’s The Fringe Dwellers (1986), but its message is equally soft, and its mind-set is just as clouded.

© Adrian Martin August 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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