A new film places Australia’s 1960s indigenous struggles in the context of the international black rights movement, writes Xanthe Whittaker
1968. Riots and revolution. Vietnam. Soul music. The elements that make up director Wayne Blair’s film The Sapphires have been done before—but never in quite this way.
The Sapphires follows four Aboriginal women who form a soul group. They leave the mission where they live, in Yorta Yorta country in southern Australia, and travel to entertain US troops along Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
Women whose lives have been largely circumscribed by being black in an Australia deeply divided by racism find themselves at the centre of an international conflict.
The film was written by Tony Briggs and is a fictionalised version of the true story of his mother and aunt. In many ways it’s a straightforward high energy comedy drama. And it has enough musical interludes to distract from the somewhat overdone scenes of war.
The Sapphires succeeds first of all in being an entertainment film. But it also tackles the unavoidable issues of racism, poverty and injustice faced by indigenous Australians.
It manages to raise more nuanced issues. For example, it explores the attitudes towards mixed race Aborigines, or the effect that race riots in the US had on the attitudes of black soldiers in Vietnam.
Most importantly it’s the first film, certainly in recent history, that places indigenous struggle of the late 1960s and the Aboriginal Pride movement in the context of an international movement for black rights.
And it shows how struggles, politics and attitudes in Australia were influenced by the civil rights and black power movements.
The Sapphires, directed by Wayne Blair, is in cinemas now