When the New Yorker reviewed Fred Shepisi’s 1978 film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, they said it “may be one of the underestimated and overlooked films of the 1970s”. Despite the Australian film’s critical success locally and abroad, and unprecedented PR efforts, it was a commercial failure. Even after being nominated for the Cannes highest honour, the Palm d’or prize.
While The Age’s review of the movie praised it for its examination of “racism and collective guilt,” saying it “ferociously confronts” Australia’s historical treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and the Daily Review pondered whether the “deep and uncomfortable silence” of the film’s credits represented the “silence of guilt,” the film is not widely known by many in mainstream Australia.
Lead actor Tommy Lewis, a Murrungun man from South Eastern Arnhem Land was thrown into the spotlight as The Chant’s lead actor. His co-star Freddie Reynolds also earned high acclaim from critics.
But the film’s biggest talking point was its extreme violence. Based on a book by Thomas Keneally, it tells the story of Jimmie who is seen as a ‘mixed race man’ by his white oppressors and faces racial discrimination, eventually boiling over into a murder spree.
The Herald’s review said the film failed to “fully articulate, let alone examine, some of the crucial problems raised.” Gumbainggir activist and actor, Professor Gary Foley, told The Bulletin that as a white filmmaker Schepisi was ignorant of the experience of racist oppression and therefore unable to demonstrate its impact or establish adequate motivation for Jimmie’s violent response.
Speaking about the most violent part of the movie, Shepisi recently said “I wanted it to be anti-violent violence. The reason that scene is so horrific in general is two-fold. One is that it’s happening to people it shouldn’t be happening to and the second is that I used a technique I developed, where it’s subjective versus objective.
“When Jimmie Blacksmith axes the lady we come charging down with the camera fast track - down to the event. Then as he goes to jump in, the camera swings around and becomes him. So the camera looks around the room at everybody yelling and running and the camera goes to those people but it moves quickly to the side and he comes back in.
Through that sequence, you’re disoriented because you’re watching him and you’re also being him. It really heightens it.”
Shepisi has also commented on the recent critical and commercial success of films such as Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah and Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires, saying “We’re now seeing the success of Indigenous film makers and actors at an extraordinary level. Back when The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was made, they didn’t have a chance. I also think the general impression was back then that they wouldn’t have the skills to do it, unfortunately. Boy, have they proven that wrong.
'Those films and performances are great because they are personal expressions.'
"They come from a place of knowing the reality, of having experienced it in your community and know it intimately. And they do, and I think it’s fabulous work. Fabulous work at that frightening level, with films like Samson and Delilah, but also at The Sapphires level. That’s a fantastic film.”
Australian Screen curator Paul Byrnes says the film’s power “came partly from the fact that it was based on the true story of Jimmy Governor, who committed the murders as late as 1900, on the eve of Federation. The film offered audiences no comfort zone, which may be one reason it wasn’t a great box office hit, but that is a measure of its greatness.” And with many critics labeling it “the greatest Australian film ever made,” its legacy, albeit troubled, is undisputed.