65% #OutOf100 – Sweet Country an Interesting Take on Racism in 1920s Australia

Sweet Country is about Sam, a middle-aged Aboriginal man living in 1920s Australia.

When Sweet Country opens, the first thing we see on screen is a boiling pot and what we hear is a fight between unseen men. We’re then introduced to Harry March (Ewen Leslie) an alcoholic war veteran who has arrived in Alice Springs to take over a cattle station. Harry turns up at Fred Smith’s (Sam Neill) place, spies Aborigine couple Sam & Lizzie Kelly (Hamilton Morris, Natassia Gorey Furber – respectively) and their niece Lucy, and asks Fred if he would let his ‘blacks’ come and help him move into his station. Fred delivers the words (paraphrased) ‘they’re not my blacks, we’re all equal in the eyes of the Lord’. 

It’s from this point Harry is set up as the villain, Fred is the hero, and Sam & Lizzie the innocent victims. Harry is forced to respectfully ask Sam if he and his family wouldn’t mind accompanying him to his station to help. Sam, agrees with no fuss. Apparent that he’s used to White Fellas like Harry. Sam takes his family over to Harry’s station, quietly tolerating Harry’s belligerent and racist behaviour as he helps with working the land, and his wife and niece work in the house.

It’s not long before we are drawn into a tense situation where unexpectedly Harry sends Lucy outside. Whilst the camera follows him slowly walking around his one-room home, closing each shutter, praising the work Lizzie has done, until the final glimpse of light before the last shutter blots it out shows a bed. The sounds of rape can be heard as the screen remains completely dark. Lizzie chooses not to tell her husband. After a disturbing conversation with Harry, who enquires about his niece, then dismisses him without pay or a thank you, Sam returns to the preacher’s station to ask him to take Lucy back to her mother in town as he’s concerned about Harry’s intentions towards her.

What then unfolds are a series of scenes where we’re introduced to other characters, Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright) who also has Black Fellas working at his station, but unlike preacher Frank, he treats them like worthless property. One of them is Archie (Gibson John), another man I didn’t catch his name, and a young mixed race (in those days called ‘half caste‘) boy called Philomac (twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan). We meeting Mick whipping Philomac for stealing watermelons. Harry who has been left without Black Fellas, comes to Mick for Archie and Philomac and it is from this point a series of events occur which result in Harry shot dead, and Sam and Lizzie on the run. We then meet Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) called in to find Sam after the news of Harry’s murder by a Black Fella reaches town.

What’s right with Sweet Country is its stunning visuals, the Australian outback is captured in its awesomeness with a great eye. It doesn’t shy away from the racism and harsh reality for Aborigines at that time. It doesn’t necessarily spell it out but the casting of mixed-race Philomac and Lucy allude to Australia’s ‘Stolen Generation’ [1]. The acting is good. There’s an interesting use of flash-forwards and, I guess you’d call them, ‘flash-nows’ to give some backstory on some of the characters. Which worked in part, sometimes though I still felt none the wiser.

What I didn’t like so much was in the film’s sparseness and abstract delivery, some of the violence and racism seemed pantomimey. Even with the understanding that most films of this ilk need their white saviour character, at times it was hard to understand why all three White Fellas Harry, Mick, and Sergeant Fletcher were so very angry, yet preacher Frank was able to remain a nice calm White Fella perfectly unaffected by the times or his environment.

We get some insight that Harry is an alcoholic, but I always have a problem when racist characters are portrayed with ‘issues’ it’s such a regular occurrence in films which deal with race. Almost like a justification – they’re only this level of racist because of alcohol or daddy issues [eye roll].

Archie jumps at every chance to betray, and or tell on Philomac and then Sam in a way that, I suppose assumption would lead us to believe he’s been brainwashed, he’s trying to survive the best he can, the African American Uncle Tom comes to mind. But it’s troubling in this film. Maybe it’s not a flaw but an uncomfortable ‘truth’? But it made it harder to pin your anger on the white racists, as Archie’s behaviour is not likeable throughout the film and essentially he’s complicit in some of the bad things which happen.

Another problem was with two scenes featuring tribal Aborigines who hadn’t westernised themselves and lived deep in the outback in their natural existence, tribal wear, and practices etc. In one scene they ruthlessly have to protect their land. Which if you understand the history of Aborigines vs. white settlers then it’s a redemption scene. The other scene isn’t complimentary and because there’s no other context, backstory or validating issue, like Archie they’re lumped in with the racists as the bad guys.

Needless to mention the rape is never given more than Lizzie’s silent resolve. Maybe that’s powerful enough?

I’m not sure if I liked Sweet Country. I watched most of it with a furrowed brow. There are some brilliant fleeting scenes between Sam and Lizzie. Archie does get a scene where you could warm to him when he lectures Philomac about his position in the world, thus revealing a teeny glimpse into why he’s so despicable to his own. Notably when you look at empty the IMDB pages of the Aborigine actors in this film, it’s a reminder of who is not represented in the major arts. But the story is important, if only to once again shed light on the injustices the western world has put indigenous people across the globe through.

That said, I’m getting tired of seeing people of colour in epic narratives depicting their suffering at the hands of angry White Fellas.

Sweet Country screens as part of the 2017 BFI London Film Festival:

  • Thursday 12 October 2017 @ 18:00 – Embankment Garden Cinema
  • Friday 13 October 2017 @ 11:00 – Embankment Garden Cinema

Find out more and book tickets here.


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