Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine…
Song of Solomon 1:2
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
to break every yoke?
Baz Luhrmann’s new film is being promoted as an epic love story, and it is, but also a strong theme of social justice runs throughout it, following in the train of the 2002 Australian film Rabbit Proof Fence.
Mr. Luhrman, who co-wrote as well as directed the script, uses his Aboriginal actors well to highlight his country’s own brand of racism that led to what has been called the plight of “The Stolen Generations.” Until as recently as 1973 the official government policy was to round up the children born to an Aboriginal woman and a white man and force them to live in government and/or church sponsored schools where, as one character says in the film, “we breed the Black out of them,” meaning that they are taught white ways so that they can become good household servants or factory workers.
Australia is narrated by Nullah (charmingly played by Brandon Walters, a newcomer who I hope will find other roles in the future), a “half-caste,” or a half-Aboriginal who is around 12 years old. he lives with his mother on Faraway Downs, a huge cattle ranch in the Northern Territory owned by an English couple. The story begins in England where Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) is fuming over the delay of her husband, who has been living on the ranch, in selling the property so that they can pay their debts. Suspicious that he is having an affair rather than engaged in selling, she travels by flying boat to Darwin, where she arrives with enough baggage for ten women.
The man who is to meet her, the Drover (Hugh Jackman), is engaged in a brawl, one which results in her suitcase full of underwear being spilt onto the ground. “Welcome to Australia,” he tells her. During the long hot drive to Faraway Downs the two develop an intense dislike of the other akin to that of the two characters in The African Queen. How this inevitable changes I will leave you to discover. Nullah will play a big role in both bringing them together and in driving them apart later on.
Part of Sarah’s change of attitude toward Drover (that is the only name he goes by in the film) comes when he reveals that he had been married but lost his wife to TB. The hospital would not treat her because she was “Black.” Also, we see that Drover’s trusted companions are Aboriginal, trail hands Magarri (David Ngoombujarra) and Goolaj (Angus Pilakui).
There are two inspiring, parallel scenes in which Drover takes his stand for justice, both taking place in Darwin’s main waterhole for dusty and thirsty cattle men: after the successful cattle drive in which Sarah has proved her mettle, and abandoned her once aristocratic, haughty demeanor, she and Drover enter the bar. When bartender Ivan tells them that no women are allowed, Drover refuses to take No for an answer. The other male drinkers, having heard how Sarah comported herself on the trail, look on sympathetically as Ivan reluctantly sets out two glasses. Much later in the story Drover invites Magarri to drink with him. But, before the Aboriginal can come through the door, Ivan calls out that no Blacks are allowed. That’s how it is the bar tender says. Drover replies, “That’s how it is; it doesn’t mean it’s how it should be.” Beckoning to his friend, he says, “Come, my brother.” Magarri comes up to the bar where Ivan reluctantly sets a tin cup beside Drover’s glass. Drover, noticing the intended slight to his friend, says, “One more glass!” In a close-up shot we see a second glass set down beside it, mirroring the close-up earlier when Sarah had received her first drink there.
There is so much to like in this film. Gorgeous scenery in the outback, from parched desert to a flowing river and waterfall. Iconic episodes such as a cattle drive and (inevitable) stampede (think Red River, which the director acknowledges was one of the epics that inspired him) and the fiery Japanese attack on Darwin (this time inspiration came from Here to Eternity), and the already mentioned initial dislike and sparring between Drover and Sarah. Also noticeable is the great respect with which the filmmakers treat the Aboriginal culture and beliefs, personified in the mysterious figure of King George (David Gulpilil), an Aboriginal shaman who watches over his grandson Nullah from the heights and assists him in an incredible act of magic at a crucial moment.
Before closing I want to also mention the theme of story and song integral to the film. This first appears in Nullah’s opening narration—” Grandfather teach me most important lesson of all—telling stories.” This is not just an Aboriginal notion, as we hear Drover tell Sarah when he is driving her from Darwin to Faraway Downs, “…in the end all you are is just a story. You try to live a good one.”
Also it is a story which brings Nullah out of himself when he is grieving over the death of his mother. Sarah asks if he would like a story, and when he responds and she has to come up with one, she notices the ad for the newly released movie The Wizard of Oz. She does not get far into the plot because when she mentions that it has songs, Nullah immediately wants to hear one. Remembering just a few of the words, she manages, amusingly in a sometimes off-key voice, to sing enough of it that Nullah can pick up the tune. Although both are aware she will never be welcome in a choir, Nullah’s response is positive, “…I like that rainbow song. It’s about dreaming.” The melody is skillfully woven into the musical score, and the song becomes a crucial element near the end of the film. Judy Garland fans will love this, even given a glimpse of her and her red shoes when Nullah and a mixed crowd watch with wide eyes the film in Darwin.
Baz Luhrmann shows how magical movies can be, transporting us to far off lands and engrossing us in the lives of fascinating people. And best of all, confronting us also with the uglier side of life and inspiring us to stand with those who, in ways however small, refuse to accept “how it is,” responding instead with, “it doesn’t mean it’s how it should be.”
This section contains spoilers.
1) In a long movie filled with memorable scenes, which do you think you will especially remember? Which was your most enjoyable? Why?
2) With which character do you identify with the most? What motivates them? What is it that Drover wants out of life? How does he need to reconnect with other people? What kind of a person is Sarah when we first meet her? How do they both change during the course of the film?
3) How is Nullah at the center of the transformations of both Sarah and Drover? What danger is he in constantly?
4) Compare Australian majority racial views with those found in the US. How are both a denial of the humanity of the minority? The man at the ball who says to Sarah that they “breed the Black out of them” (at the schools for mixed race children) adds, “The Aboriginal mother soon forgets her offspring.” What similar myths have you heard prejudiced people say to justify their views? Based on what happened in California on November 4, what is the current minority group that many Americans cannot accept?
5) How is the statement “That’s how
it is; it doesn’t mean it’s how it should be” very revolutionary? Why do you think most people go along with “how it is” ? How is the statement in keeping with the Hebrew prophets?
6) What do you think of bringing in The Wizard of Oz and its signature song “Somewhere Over the Rain” ? What do you think Nullah means when he says that he likes the song, “It is about dreaming?’ How are dreams important in his culture?
7) What significance do you see in the passing of the harmonica to Nullah? When Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson) was dying, what was his most pressing concern? What meaning do you see in King George’s promise in the desert, “I will sing you to water” ?
8) How does Sarah show that she still has a way to go on the journey to maturity: when she first resists Nullah’s desire to go on a walkabout? When she wants Drover to remain with her so badly that she reacts in anger when he insists on going on a six-month cattle drive for the Army? (What are her last words to him as he walks away?)
9) What do you think of Magarri’s words to Drover, “If you don’t have love in your heart, you’ve got nothing. No dreaming, no story, nothing” ? How does Sarah show that her heart is full of love in the case of Nullah: that is, what is she willing to sign over to Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) in her endeavor to keep Nullah with her? How does Neil’s fate demonstrate the darker side of what Magarri means?
10) How does the ending show that Sarah’s love for Nullah has matured? What insights has this film added to your life? Where do you see grace, or the hand of God, in operation?
Note: To find out more about “The Stolen Generations” see my review of another Australian film, Rabbit-Proof Fence, reprinted in the DVD section of this issue. Instead of a sub theme, this film centers on the attempt of three mixed-race children to escape from the so-called school into which they had been herded after police had kidnapped them from their distraught mother.