I could never be a real militant. Because there’s no way a real militant would’ve sat through Baz Luhrmann’s latest epic, Australia, which clocks in at a superfluous 3+ hours, and dug it as much as I did. It’s a film rife with knee-jerk infuriation potential. It’s got everything to rankle the revolutionary: racial slurs, a brother taking bullets for Hugh Jackman, an abusive white-on-black relationship, the phrase “I’m as good as Black to those people out there,” and even a little blackface for good measure. But I’ve yet to mention the race-baiting facet that receives the brightest spotlight: the magical Negro (and Half-Negro, as it were) archetype.
From the first frame, a puerile, adorably accented voice works overtime to endear you to what will inevitably be another racist tale of White colonists winning the day. But even so, the charms of that voice are hard to resist–especially when you see the chocolate-drop face it belongs to. Nullah (Brandon Walters) is a biracial pre-adolescent (maybe ten? eleven?), happily living on rundown property called Faraway Downs with his aboriginal mother, a few other servants, and a villainous White rancher named Neil Fletcher. Aboriginal mom, villainous White rancher… you probably already see where this is going.
Enter Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. All you need to know about them is that, by the second hour of the film, Nullah is in their custody and by the third hour of the film they’ve lost him to the desolate Catholic mission camp where all mixed-raced Aboriginal children in a priest’s or policeman’s plain sight were herded, after being stolen from their secure, healthy Aboriginal households. Will the stubbornly feuding, but madly in love Kidman-and-Jackman reunite to reclaim their “creamy” boy, Nullah, by the film’s
This is a Baz Luhrmann flick. Come on, fam.
But speaking of “creamy,” Nullah is the butt of a ton of racial slurs throughout the film, the former being chief among them. He’s also called a half-caste, a half-half, a half-breed, and an in-between. He often forlornly muses, “I notta Black guy. I notta White guy,” and seriously, this little boy is an instant cavity; he’s that sweet. And he’s indomitable. The child is nearly killed no less than five times in this film and he never, ever seems at all upset about it… which is fortunate, because if he were prone to depression, his character would have Tragic Mulatto written all over it and, really, in a film this full of stereotypes, we really didn’t need that.
Perhaps Nullah’s obliviously carefree attitude has something to do with his grandfather, King George, known to the White community surrounding him as a Bushman/witch doctor/magic man, who stalks Nullah
throughout the film. They sing to each other in these white-whale-like voices that manage to guide them to safety no matter how screwed up things are—up to and including Japan’s explosive obliteration of Darwin, which King George just stands amongst, never bothering to take cover, looking cryptically around like he’s causing it all, and the foot soldier blasts that ravage the quaint little mission camp where Nullah and all the other “creamy”/half-breed/half-caste biracial babies are housed.
There’s an overabundance of Aboriginal mysticism in this film. King George and Nullah are responsible for everything from calming a charging herd of cattle to finding water in the “Never-Never,” a dust bowl from which no one has ever emerged alive, to preserving the love of Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. The Whites in the film look up to them and/or fear them for their feats, without ever having to consider them equals. Case in point: when King George approaches a renovated Faraway Downs to collect little Nullah for his walkabout, a traditional Aboriginal rite of manhood, Nicole Kidman feels entirely justified in trying to forbid the proceedings. (In the end, she comes around, and the last shot of the show is Nullah pulling off his Westernized polo shirt and trotting into the bush with dear old granddad.)
Oddly, though, even with all this going on, I still adored this large-scale hodgepodge of half-stories. I don’t know what that says about me, except that I’m obviously not a militant. And I have high Baz Luhrmann tolerance—and even higher Hugh Jackman tolerance. Add to the mix a cute little Aboriginal kid whose real life story includes beating leukemia at the age of seven and… well. I, like some of Aboriginal Australia, am one step closer to accepting the Prime Minister’s formal apology for more than a half-century of stealing biracial kids and selling them into indentured servitude. I said one step closer. And it’s a really small step… I just… well? What can I say?
Sappiness covers a multitude of sins.