First things first: the film opens with the kind of grand drama that is a hallmark of Perkins’ film-making. The first images are culled from television news announcements of the verdict in the 1992 High Court case that abolished terra nullius; then the musical soundtrack kicks in at a series of aerial shots of Merriam, the homeland that lies at the heart of the legal case. It’s heartstopping: the kind of shot that Perkins has often deployed to launch her narratives, and I have to say that here, as elsewhere in the film, cinematographer Andrew Commis proves himself nearly as worthy a choice as Perkins’ longtime collaborator Warwick Thornton.
Especially in the early scenes of the movie, where establishing character takes precedence over narrative incident, Perkins and Commis are a formidable pair. In those first aerial shots, we see the outlines of the stone weirs in the coastal shallows that delineate property in a way that a European legal system will someday, far in the film’s future, be able to recognize as cognate to its own. Next, Koiki as a child walks within those stony enclosures with his father; soon thereafter, we see Koiki as a strong young man, dancing powerful rhythms in ceremony. Father’s eyes meet son’s, and the older man steps up to join the line of dancers with his son, testifying to the linkages across generations.
Shortly thereafter, Koiki, exiled to the mainland, meets Bonita and makes a total cock-up of his first serious encounter with her and her family. Walking home disgraced and rum-laden from the wedding party he had slipped into to speak to her for the first time, he’s stopped by a policeman and subjected to a different kind of humiliation. Left alone, walking down the tracks of a railway he has probably helped build with his sweat and muscle, he suddenly steps back into the dance we saw him perform with his father; the sequence is perhaps the high point of visual drama in the entire 100 minutes of the film. Yes, it’s television, with ghostly voices and swirling mist and backlighting to die for, but it’s thrilling television, television as it was meant to be made. And it ties together all the crucial elements of Mabo’s history and character. Watching Eddie dance on those tracks, we are in the nexus of family, both father and wife, oppression at the hands of white power, tradition, pride, and the conviction that to live is to fight. The film to this point is a brilliant prelude and fugue, and though what follows is often moving, the sheer artistry of these early scenes is never quite equalled.
Although what follows is most certainly the story of Mabo’s politicization and his fight to inherit his father’s plot of land, the latter two-thirds of the film are in many ways a whitefella story. By that I mean that the terms of the conflict are dictated by Australian law, played out in Australian courts, and run along the protocols of legal conventions that have nothing to do with Indigenous custom. It’s hard in these circumstances to focus on the issues and at the same time to portray Eddie Mabo as other than a plaintiff. And thus our engagement comes through a series of emotional moments focused more on Eddie and his family, particularly his wife Bonita, and the love that sees them through more than thirty years of marriage and ten years of a court battle.
I make no complaints about this fact, and indeed, the story is handled affectively throughout, thanks in large part to stunning performances by Jimi Bani and Deborah Mailman, who delivers the performance of a lifetime, subtle, sweet, and hard. Mabo the man becomes encapsulated in the court case and the drama of the story arises out of reversals and victories, alliances and enemies, and the strategies of southern lawyers.
Perhaps this is only fitting, with art bending to the strictures of life. For despite the truly historic nature of the battle to secure legal rights to land for the country’s Indigenous people and despite the evacuation of the doctrine of terra nullius, despite the joyful hugs exchanged in the wake of the spreading news of the victory, something rings hollow at the film’s conclusion. The story seems exhausted, and not only because its protagonist died five short months before the verdict was handed down.
I suspect that may be the point here. Mabo was broadcast almost twenty years to the day after the decision; it is pointedly a solemn recognition of the anniversary. But such anniversaries prompt us to look back and not only remember how things stood at that point in the past but also assess how life has changed in the meantime. And in doing so, it is hard to feel triumphant, which may be why Mabo wisely avoids engendering such feelings.
True, vast territories have been adjudicated and title handed back–845,000 square kilometers, or about 11% of the continent’s landmass, much of it in the Northern Territory. As of April 2010, the existence of Native Title has been established in eighty-four cases; over five hundred applications remain open and it is estimated that another thirty years of litigation could be required to determine the outcomes in all of them. If it has been twenty years since the decision in Mabo jolted our consciousness, it has been ten since Elizabeth Povinelli published The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous alterities and the making of Australian multiculturalism (Duke University Press, 2002), in which she forcefully argued that the legal and moral paradoxes of the decision have had the net effect of circumscribing Indigenous voices and subjugating them still to the collective moral limitations of the cultural majority. In June of 2007, fifteen years almost to the day after the Mabo decision, the Howard government announced the Intervention and began a series of actions designed to undercut much of what had been achieved since 1992.
If Rachel Perkins’ film ends on a note of muted celebration, we should not be surprised. Perhaps it is enough to be reminded why the struggle was engaged and why it remains important. The story is not yet finished.