Directed by Wayne Blair
In cinemas now
“Soul music is about loss. And they haven’t given up. So every note that passes through your lips should have the tone of a woman who’s grasping and fighting and desperate to retrieve what’s been taken from her.”
So intones Dave (Chris O’Dowd), the manager of soul group The Sapphires. These words could describe the feeling in Aboriginal politics in the late 1960s as anger, hope and the influence of radical ideas (both musical and political ones) from US politics grew.
This internationalist flavour is conveyed in the opening of The Sapphires that showcases Muhammad Ali’s famous anti-war message, “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”
Set in the revolutionary year of 1968, The Sapphires is a feel-good, Hollywood-style take on the true story of a Koori soul group, originally the Cummeragunja Songbirds, who perform for American troops in Vietnam.
Sadly, the film shies away from taking the side of the Vietnamese against US imperialism and illustrating the troops’ mutiny against the war. But it does shine a light on Australia’s history of dispossession and assimilation of Aboriginal people, and the burgeoning resistance to it.
When sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) defy the colour bar to perform in their local pub’s talent quest, Gail begins by declaring to the racist audience that they are on Aboriginal land, before proceeding with a country and western number.
Gail’s pluck is consistent with her community’s tradition of resistance. The sisters come from Cummeragunja mission, controlled by the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board from 1915. Aboriginal residents were paid in inadequate and food rations for their work, confined to the station and forced to live in huts. The conditions sparked Australia’s first ever mass Aboriginal strike in 1939, when at least 150 people walked off the mission.
Their actions anticipated the myriad of anti-racist struggles that were to explode in the 1960s and 1970s.
At one point the group’s manager Dave calls Gail “Cassius Clay” (Muhammed Ali’s previous name) a reference to her fiery determination, but also an acknowledgement of the growing confidence of Aboriginal people to challenge apartheid in Australia.
In 1965 Charles Perkins toured northwestern NSW with Sydney University students to expose racist segregation in regional towns. They defied colour bars on public facilities and won the right for Aboriginals to access places like the Moree public pool.
These Freedom Rides were inspired by Martin Luther King Jr and the resistance to racism in the US and drew embarrassing comparisons with the Jim Crow segregation laws of the southern USA.
In 1967 Gurindji stock workers striking for equal pay staged their historic walk-off and stepped up the campaign for land rights. National speaking tours sponsored by unions meant their plight evoked widespread sympathy.
Such struggles had convinced many Australians that Aboriginal people deserved rights, reflected in the 90 per cent “Yes” vote in the 1967 referendum that gave the federal government power to pass laws overriding the states on Aboriginal issues.
But the conservative Holt government did not use the referendum to deliver change for Aboriginal people. As Aboriginal activist Kath Walker, later Oodgeroo Noonuccal, said, “It gave Australia a better image overseas but did nothing for the Aborigine.”
On the ascendance
Following the 1967 referendum the liberal politics associated with the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) was eclipsed by more radical ideas and organisations.
These included the founding of the Australian Black Panther Party, the Tent Embassy protest at Canberra for land rights, and a proliferation of street marches, including the immensely significant national Black Moratorium marches in 1972 when unionists walked out on strike for Aboriginal rights.
Such mass support gave confidence to Aboriginal people in their resistance to assimilation. The theme of reclaiming lost identity is poignantly touched on in the film. The sisters’ fair-skinned cousin, Kay, is a victim of the Stolen Generation. Having lived a life of repressed identity, Kay eventually joins her cousins on tour in Vietnam.
When The Sapphires’ vehicle is stopped by Viet Cong at gunpoint, it seems their days are numbered. But Kay steps forward and addresses the Vietnamese with a Yorta-Yorta request to pass through their country. In a moment of solidarity between two peoples fighting for self-determination the singers are allowed to pass and in an act of resistance Kay reclaims her Aboriginal identity.
The gravity of the Vietnam War and racism in Australia sits uneasily with the film’s light-hearted tone. It is nevertheless a compelling reminder of the injustices that sparked the modern Aboriginal rights movement.
Tragically, many of the gains of this movement are now being stripped away and a new form of protectionism has been reinstated with the NT Intervention. It’s important to remember that the oppression portrayed in The Sapphires is not yet history.