The film is set in Australia during World War II. A cattle-ranch owner, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) seeks to adopt a young bi-racial boy (Brandon Walters), who is under constant threat of being taken away by the police under Australia’s assimilation policy. In the meantime, she meets a handsome cowboy, Drover (Hugh Jackman), who helps her take care of her cattle and eventually falls in love with her.
The film tries to point out the horrors of white Australia’s old policy of assimilating mixed-race children. To be sure, it is wrong to take mixed-race kids from their Aboriginal parents, even for the purpose of teaching them to read and write. But in the grand scheme of things, Australia’s assimilation policy was an arguably small sin compared to other colonial crimes in its history. For example, it is reported that the British colonization of Australia led to a pandemic of diseases, such as smallpox, which killed over half the Aboriginal population. Moreover, from the 1838 Myall Creek massacre to the 1928 Coniston massacre, Australian settlers had few qualms about killing indigenous people and taking their land.
In contrast, under the assimilation policy, at least some mixed-race children were able to get educated, find jobs, go to church, and enjoy better lives than their aboriginal ancestors. In a March 14 article in The Age, one woman reported mixed feelings about the policy: “I was put in a mission dormitory when I was eight, nine. I cried for two nights, then I was right with the rest of those kids. We weren’t stolen; our family was there. It was a good system. Or a better system than now. At least my generation learnt to read and write properly.”
The irony is that even as the film apologizes profusely for the relatively small sins of forced assimilation, it nonetheless adopts offensive racial attitudes—some of which the director and the actors seem blissfully unaware.
First, the depiction of the Aborigines comes across as condescending. All the Aboriginal women, including the bi-racial boy’s mother, are depicted as short, fat, and ugly. Meanwhile, the white women, particularly the heroines of this liberal Hollywood parable on race, are played by tall, slim, beautiful actresses like Nicole Kidman and Essie Davis. In the film, the boy’s dark-skinned mother drowns surprisingly quickly after spending barely a few minutes in a water tank—she is an expendable character. In contrast, Kidman’s Lady Ashley goes on to survive several fires and a bomb blast without so much as a scratch. To add insult to injury, she even comes to replace the Aboriginal woman as the boy’s maternal figure.
It gets worse. The silent hero of the film is an old Aborigine magician, who is depicted as a caricature: a half-naked, apelike savage who stands on one leg. He is a one-dimensional character in the film, where he exists to perform two functions—to kill one of the bad guys, and to perform a few magic tricks to save Lady Ashley’s cattle. To borrow a phrase from director Spike Lee, this character would probably be classified as a “magical black man”—a stock character whose mystical powers are used to help get the white protagonist out of trouble. Although superficially portrayed as a good character, the “magical black man” serves merely as a tool to clear the scene of bad guys, to set up the stage for the final scene where the hero and heroine—both white, of course—can kiss in peace. To this end, the film even gives the old Aborigine magician a white nickname—“King George”—to reflect his function in the story.
Moreover, the film’s depiction of a male Chinese servant—the only Chinese character in the film, exists in the film as a crude Hollywood stereotype of Chinese men. In a film where even the Aboriginal characters speak perfectly grammatical English, the Chinese servant is the only character in Australia who speaks broken English with a caricatured accent. There is one poignant scene in the plot where most of the main characters ride out to herd cattle—a team that includes whites, blacks, men, women, and even a little child. Unable to ride, the lone Chinaman is left to look after the team’s food and luggage. He is not capable of riding on one of the big horses. Instead, he is treated as an emasculated, servile stock character.
It is ironic that Australia is being promoted as a progressive, anti-racist film even while its racial stereotypes are being broadcast around the world. It is even more ironic that this film was made not by deranged white supremacists, but by ‘intelligent’ Hollywood liberals who ought to know better.