Like many Australian films of the late 1970s (including Picnic At Hanging Rock and My Brilliant Career), Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is set in 1901, the year of Australia’s Federation. This period is significant because it was a time of dramatic social change, a time in which one nation sought to define itself. Following the sexual revolution of the 60s, America’s Watergate scandal and the ill-fated Vietnam war effort, much of the world was forced to similarly redefine its traditions during the 1970s.
The character of Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis) materialises the anxieties associated with searching for one’s identity. He is a half-caste Aborigine. As such, Jimmie is abused and exploited by the white population and ostracised from Aboriginal communities. At first, Jimmie appears comfortable taking the middle ground, though it is clear that he aspires towards the white population. Jimmie’s aspirations inspire his desire to learn about white tradition, and leads him to take a white wife, Gilda (Angela Punch McGregor). Still, Jimmie is degraded by the white community. His cultural alienation and personal isolation (even while surrounded by ‘family members’) eventually overcome him, and he mimics a white tradition in his declaration of war against the Caucasion population.
The film’s explicit portrayal of violence seems excessive at first, until one considers the black irony of the images. Though Jimmie’s story is based on real events, the facts of Australian history have it that for more than one hundred years before Jimmie’s backlash, white Australians violently killed, tortured and persecuted the nation’s indigenous population to the brink of destroying the face. In fact, horrifying ‘emu parades’ through Tasmanian bushland eradicated the entire population of full-blooded Tasmanian aborigines in the early stages of this century.
It is possibly as a result of the current white population’s guilt surrounding the poor treatment of our indigenous peoples that The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, as well as most Australian films about Aborigines, failed at the box-office despite its critical approval and big budget (for the time).
The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith is an intelligent tale whose evocative themes and discourses are as relevant today, in the midst of Mabo and Wik land claims, as they were when the film was released in 1978. Fred Schepisi has superbly transposed Thomas Keneally’s original literary work in his creation of a story that taps into a raw nerve in its brazen exploration of universal truths regarding the human condition.