“I want to share this award with all the First Nations peoples represented in this film and all the Indigenous communities around the world.”
Sometimes it takes a white person to speak for us, to bring our stories to the world. It is sad but still true. So it is again with actor Leonardo DiCaprio accepting the Golden Globe for best actor (drama).
It was for his performance in The Revenant, a film of survival and revenge in the American frontier. It won all the major film drama awards: best actor, best director and best film.
It is a sparse, sometimes brutal and visually stunning film, which is winning praise for its portrayal of Native Americans. Thankfully gone are they days when they were visual wallpaper: depicted as yelping savages, or stoic, monosyllabic characters to be vanquished by the righteous whites. In the golden days of 1950s Hollywood, Indians – as they were then known – were often played by bronzed up white people.
'How disappointing though that despite the swag of awards won by The Revenant, the First Nations actors were still ignored, none of them taking home a prize.'
In The Revenant, the Arikara people featured in the film are fully formed humans, central to the film’s narrative. As DiCaprio’s character seeks vengeance Duane Howard’s Elk Dog – an Arikara leader – looks to be reunited with his kidnapped daughter.
These characters are violent; they love and yearn. These are people whose land has been stolen, whose economy is being plundered and who are fighting back. It isn’t perfect – the Native Americans are still too often mystical and unknowable and an air of doom hangs over their fate. But there is authenticity. Much of the film’s dialogue is in Arikara language and First Nations advisers worked with the producers.
How disappointing though that despite the swag of awards won by The Revenant, the First Nations actors were still ignored, none of them taking home a prize.
Still, DiCaprio honoured their work and his speech calling for the recognition of indigenous history resonates here too. Black Australian writers, actors, musicians and filmmakers are reclaiming our stories.
It has been a long time coming. In 2003, film critic Peter Krausz surveyed a century of Australian film and found an industry that rendered us almost invisible. More than a thousand feature films were produced in this country, yet Krausz could identify only around 50 movies that represented Aboriginal people at all.
In the silent era, Indigenous people were the stealing hordes, disrupting the “peaceful settlement” of Australia. We were shifty, untrustworthy, hostile, lazy, and ignorant. Just like America, Indigenous characters here were sometimes played by white actors in black face.
In the 1950s, Charles Chauvel’s Jedda marked a turning point. This was a story that grappled with issues of integration, a black girl raised by whites and then kidnapped by an Aboriginal man.
In the 1970s there was a breakout, films like Walkabout – introducing David Gulpilil – The Last Wave, and Backroads. I still recall the impact of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, a movie inspired by the Tom Keneally novel of the same name and based on the life of Jimmy Governor, an Indigenous man whose murder spree at the turn of the 20th century launched the biggest manhunt to that time in Australia’s history.
He was a Wiradjuri man like me and his story told of a people trapped between the frontier and the dawn of a new federated nation. It was a story of resistance – yes, violent – and, as a 15-year-old boy, helped nourish my identity in the way the myth of Ned Kelly informs Australians’ sense of themselves.
But these were films made by white men, Peter Weir, Phillip Noyce or Fred Schepisi.
Now we have Indigenous directors and producers like Ivan Sen, Warwick Thornton, Rachel Perkins and Wayne Blair giving life and voice to our stories. Deborah Mailman, Ernie Dingo, Aaron Pedersen, Leah Purcell, Luke Carroll, Miranda Tapsell are actors continuing the tradition of Robert Tudawali, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, Jack Charles, Bob Maza and others, breaking through to popular audiences.
Whether it be Bran Nue Dae or The Sapphires or Samson and Delilah on the big screen or Redfern Now on television, this wonderful generation of creative talent are demolishing the old adage that “blacks don’t rate”.
Australians have told us they are ready for these stories – yes, challenging, confronting and disturbing, but also funny, poignant and uplifting. Stories matter, at their best they connect us to the humanity in us all.
There is a Golden Globe or an Oscar awaiting, as Leonardo DiCaprio said: it is time indigenous voices were heard, and we don’t need anyone else to speak for us.
Stan Grant is Managing Editor of NITV's flagship News and Current Affairs TV program The Point. He is also The Guardian's Indigenous Affairs Editor. This article first appeared in The Guardian.