Mabo is a love story.
And a superb one at that.
Eddie Mabo’s legal fight for native title was eventually won in the High Court of Australia in June 1992. It was a ten year battle against both Queensland and Federal Governments. One man against the establishment. Black versus white. History versus Modern Australia.
Now an ABC telemovie brings to life the man behind the fight, and the woman behind the man.
In the role of Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo is Jimi Bani (The Straits, RAN: Remote Area Nurse), raised by an uncle on Murray Island in the Torres Straits. Early scenes see him at one with the land and sea, valuing his natural surrounds and the winds of his ancestors.
In the 1950s as a young man he works to build a railway line in outback Queensland. Here he sets eyes on a young Bonita (Deborah Mailman) and begins a romance that will last for the rest of his life. While Eddie is forward and charming, “Netta” is shy but grounded. They are qualities that both will draw upon time and again.
But Eddie is also determined to better himself, constantly reading and joining local unions.
“Where’s all that reading getting you? Black fella jobs, that’s all you’re going to get. Gonna be Prime Minister next are you?” says one cynical friend.
Years before equal rights, he is banned from drinking at local pubs and the telemovie mixes archival news footage that reminds us some public venues had one door for whites and another for blacks.
But Eddie marries his sweetheart and raises a young family in Townsville, hoping to bring them to his home on Murray Island. A stubborn young man, he also locks horns with authority with regularity, resulting in lock-ups that put him at odds with the ever patient Netta.
Through the 1960s and into the ’70s, the oppression continues, but it never quells his spirit.
“What more can they do to me that hasn’t already been done? I’ve lost jobs. I’ve been in the stinkin’ lock up. What more can they do?” he asks.
He is banned from returning to Murray Island to see his dying father, because he is a perceived to be a ‘black activist’ in a Joh-Bjelke Petersen Queensland. But learning that the Crown owns his homeland is a final straw. He gives a speech at James Cook University that sums up his anger.
“You think some white fella sticking the Union Jack in the sand wipes out 16 generations?” he demands.
And so begins the long legal battle against the establishment that nearly divides his family.
Mabo is handsomely produced by Blackfella Productions and lovingly realised by writer Sue Smith (Bastard Boys, RAN, Brides of Christ). Director Rachel Perkins captures the naivete of Queensland through much of the last century. From its wooden houses on stilts to the cicadas in the tropical heat, it evocatively contrasts with colloquial racism, ignorance and injustice.
Jimi Bani turns in a powerful performance as Eddie Mabo, requiring him to age from young romantic to the defiant elder. He draws upon passion for an enigmatic role. Deborah Mailman almost steals the movie from underneath him. Yet again she shines on screen, bringing quiet awe, a winning smile and emotional strength to her performance.
The legal teams are played by Tom Budge, Leon Ford, Ewen Leslie, Miranda Otto and Felix Williamson (no Keating role for him here, despite the potential to depict government). Colin Friels also plays a magistrate and Rob Carlton dons an abrasive role against Mabo.
There is also archival news footage of Bob Katter and Joh Bjelke-Petersen, with the latter saying of the Indigenous legal fight, “They have nothing to contribute and they expect to get a lot out of it.”
Mabo also films several scenes in actual locations unique to this story, including a Brisbane courtroom, James Cook University lecture theatre and a Black Community School established by Eddie and Netta.
At times you will feel like Eddie Mabo’s daunting fight for justice is the stuff of Erin Brokovich. The final scenes of this telemovie are poetic and emotional, and the moment the High Court news is revealed is perfectly captured in a wonderful exchange of black and white Australia.
Twenty years on Eddie Mabo’s fight has lost none of its relevance. Now there will be more generations who will come to understand this important chapter of our modern history.
Best local fare on the box so far this year.
Mabo airs 8:30pm Sunday June 10 on ABC1.