At a time when black fellas were anything but integrated in Australian society, Eddie Mabo stood out. He was never one to shy away from making a stand for his principles, even getting thrown in jail for refusing to leave a pub while staging a peaceful demonstration just to be served in the front bar. Eddie (Jimi Bani) knew he needed to stand up and speak out against what he saw was injustice in both the way he and his people were treated day to day, but also in preserving their culture and way of life. Bonita (Deborah Mailman) professes she fell in love with him the first time he came calling on him, and was going to stick by him through thick or thin (and we see plenty of both).
“People like us – we can’t afford to be troublemakers.” – Nita.
“People like have to choice but to BE troublemakers… ’cause if we don’t, we don’t have any pride left.” – Eddie.
Director Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae, First Australians, One Night The Moon) and writer Sue Spencer (Bastard Boys, RAN, Brides of Christ) consulted with the Mabo family extensively and deliver us a story rich with love – Eddie for his wife Bonita; Eddie for his people; and Eddie for his birthplace. Mabo is deeply attached to his home on Murray Island – the islands and waters around them. When he learns after his father’s death that he does not have a right to their land, he knows something must be done. He seeks help and challenges it in the Queensland Supreme Court and thus begins the battle to overthrow the principle of terra nullius, and a claim of native title. Perkins offers particular deft touch with some of the sequences throughout the story including Mabo’s dance on the train tracks.
The casting of Bani and Mailman is perfect. He swaggers on-screen as a youthful Mabo and commands attention the entire film while her electric presence draws the eye each time she’s in frame. Their performances are considered and deft, and while Mailman is known for her skill as a character actor it’s a joy to anoint Bani in the same manner. A leading couple so direct and reflective of the characters they play we’re yet to see. The supporting cast are no slouches either, with a who’s who of the Australian acting fraternity in Colin Friels, Miranda Otto, Rob Carlton, Ewen Leslie, Tom Budge, Felix Williamson and Leon Ford delivering solid performances in their moments in and out of the courtroom.
Admittedly there’s a lot to cover in a very short space of time: Eddie’s life is condensed into an hour and forty minutes, and a 10 year trial into 35 minutes within that. The script is pacey and at times jumps months-to-years without much more than a change in hair/beard/clothing style, but it’s necessary to push the narrative forward (it’s no legal procedural story). The use of transcripts from the court hearings add authenticity, as does intercut footage of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Bob Katter as politicians of the day having their say on the Mabo case. The sight of a heavily pregnant Bonita riding a bike home from work late at night as a younger woman is a reminder of a very different time.
“The nation as a whole must remain diminished unless and until there is acknowledgement of, and a retreat from, those past injustices.” – Justices Dean and Gaudron (Australian High Court Justices in their delivering the Mabo decision).
Throughout the entire case there was the distinct sense that this was significant. Important. From his humble beginnings as a railway worker to a gardener at James Cook University to took on two governments – including that of Sir Joh at the height of his power – Eddie Mabo proved when you stand up for what you believe to be is right you will be vindicated. The passing of Eddie before the High Court verdict was delivered was handled sensitively and with great respect. The Mabo family are to be commended for their involvement in this production, even supplying paintings by Eddie to decorate the set of family home in Townsville.
“Mabo is an historic decision; we can make it an historic turning point – the basis of a new relationship between indigenous and non-aboriginal Australians.” – Paul Keating (then Prime Minister of Australia).
It’s an important story. A story of our recent history. Of righting past wrongs. Of justice. Mabo is a great reminder of a great Australian and the things he stood for that, ultimately, help close the gap between white and black Australia.
Mabo – Sun 10/6 8:30pm, ABC1.