Director: Fred Schepisi
New South Wales, Australia, the turn of the twentieth century. Jimmie Blacksmith, a half Aboriginal young man is raised by a white preacher and his wife. After hunting with some Aborigines, he’s whipped for his disobedience. Jimmie, now old enough to make his own way, finds a job as a labourer on a farm owned by the Healy’s, building fences. He is underpaid, disrespected and punched by his boss when he infers he’s illiterate. Jimmie has a brief romance with Gilda, a white serving girl, whom Jimmie marries when she discovers she’s pregnant. The child is born white but Jimmie accepts it as his own and stays with Gilda.
Jimmie’s new employers, the Newby’s, encourage Gilda to leave Jimmie and stay with them. She refuses. Jimmie is sacked when his Aboriginal friends set up camp on Newby’s land. Jimmie ‘declares war’, originally intending to frighten Newby’s family, but begins a massacre, killing his wife and daughters. Jimmie and Mort, his half-brother, then go on the run, abandoning Gilda and their child. Jimmie commits revenge against all those who wronged him, including the Healy’s. Jimmie’s uncle is tried for his participation in one of the murders. Jimmie and Mort kidnap a schoolteacher and take him hostage. Mort later takes him to safety and is killed. After Jimmie is wounded, he takes refuge at a convent, but is caught and constantly beaten as he is taken away semi-conscious.
Suddenly, as if from nowhere, Australian cinema exploded in the late 1970s, because of a combination of increased public subsidies in the arts and the emergence of a new generation of a gifted actors and directors, all of whom made an international reputation for themselves. Films like ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ (Peter Weir), ‘Breaker Morant’ (Bruce Beresford) and ‘The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’ were critically acclaimed across the world and all tackled Australia’s heritage and history, but perhaps no Australian film of the era was quite so introspective in terms of examining Australia’s chequered and controversial past.
In recent years, there has been greater awareness of and contrition about the treatment of the indigenous population in Australia. The recent ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’ (2002) examined the plight of the “stolen generation” – Aboriginal children removed from their families because of a state policy that can only be described as eugenics and reducing the Aboriginal population. As a caption informs, 270 000 Aborigines were killed by white settlers – they stole a country and destroyed a culture. ‘The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’ entered this territory some twenty-five years before, when it was much more of a taboo subject.
Schepisi pulls no punches with his portrayal of white society, which is either stern and patronising (the preacher and his wife) or just overtly prejudiced (the various employers Jimmie works for). The latter seem to be playing to type, but it’s the former who are the far more interesting and one wonders whether Schepisi thinks that the intellectuals, like the preacher and the schoolteacher are those who are seriously undermining opportunities for Jimmie and others than the boorish, uneducated whites who spout racially-motivated obscenities. It’s these educated elites who are pursuing a systematic policy of wiping out the indigenous populations by taking Jimmie away from his natural environment and forcing him to integrate into a society he patently doesn’t belong to. The preacher whips Jimmie for associating with his Aboriginal friends and chastises him for having no ambition and being needed for higher things – pairing off with a white woman and reducing his caste over several generations for one.
Yet Schepisi is aware of the futility of the exercise. Jimmie can never be fully integrated into a white society as the likes of the Healy and Newby will always be there, prejudiced until the end, unwilling to treat Jimmie as an equal. At the same time, Jimmie will never be fully accepted into Aboriginal society. There’s one key scene where Jimmie assists the police to find an Aborigine who’s accused of killing a white boy. He even assaults the accused with some venom. This demonstrates how keen Jimmie is to become part of this white society, yet the colour of his skin will always hold him back. It’s the attempts to navigate and compromise between two radically different cultures that becomes Jimmie’s undoing and eventually compels him to unleash a wave of violence. Watch how Jimmie performs a native Aboriginal dance before the birth of his child and how his anticipation is cruelly mocked by the child being born white, clearly not his. Although he doesn’t blame his loyal wife, it’s the final insult – the child could have aided his integration but instead it makes it further impossible.
Also intriguing is how the film defies the rest of the themes of the nascent Australian new wave of film making. The likes of ‘Gallipoli’ and ‘Breaker Morant’ contributed to a wider project of myth-making about Australian history; patriotic and proud. Schepisi reveals turn of the century Australia, on the verge of becoming the confederation and therefore a united country, to be a very different place whatsoever to what Weir et al would have you believe. ‘The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’ was based on real events that took place; not just the eugenics policy but the violence that was unleashed by festering resentment. Only recently has discussing the subject been acceptable. The new Australian Prime Minister publicly apologises for the treatment of the indigenous populations in the past. Watching ‘The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’ is undoubtedly a chastening experience; difficult but an incredibly frank look of a country’s shame.