Films

Waging bloody war against the whites

THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH Directed by Fred Schepisi

Lawrence O’Toole October 13 1980
Films

Waging bloody war against the whites

THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH Directed by Fred Schepisi

Lawrence O’Toole October 13 1980

Waging bloody war against the whites

Films

THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH Directed by Fred Schepisi

Since 1978, when it became the first Australian film to compete officially at the Cannes Film Festival, advance word on The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith has been ecstatic: it was a great work of movie art. But to approach it with expectations commensurate with the “great art” hype surrounding it may well prove disillusioning. Fred Schepisi, writer, producer and director of the film, has an undeniable and demonic gift for seeing with a camera; yet as exciting, disturbing and deliriously beautiful as some of Jimmie Blacksmith's moments are, they never pull together into the kind of reverberating mass that leaves you stunned as great works of art do. The movie has visual depth without an emotional resonance to match, and if there’s a story demanding all-out emotional fury it’s Jimmie Blacksmith’s.

Based on true events at the turn of the century when Australia was seeking federation of its colonies, the story follows Jimmie (Tommy Lewis), a halfcaste aborigine brought up by a missionary, as he tries to make a living as best a black could at the time. When he builds a fence for a farmer, he’s underpaid; as a tracker of criminals for the police, he’s subjected to abuse from his “boss man” and forced to turn against his own kind, for whom he feels ambivalence anyway. The injustices continue and culminate when a landowner withholds his pay because Jimmie’s black family has arrived for an extended visit. His white wife (Angela Punch) and her

child hungry, Jimmie goes to the landowner’s house with his uncle (Steve Dodds) and, in one of the most shocking sequences executed on film, axes four women to death. Having declared war against the whites, Jimmie, with his younger half-brother (Freddy Reynolds), begins a spree of retribution— Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle loose in the bush.

If we could have been able to see into the black man’s soul and the many shades of hate and confusion swimming around in it, Jimmie Blacksmith would have been unbearably powerful. But Schepisi, as a writer, hasn’t the talent to make the dialogue anything more than expository and he isn’t very good with actors. Tommy Lewis, the un-

known who plays Jimmie, keeps fighting off the camera, removed from us by miles. Jimmie’s education in anger doesn’t tear at us because it isn’t conveyed to us by the actor and because the movie’s rhythm is too leisurely, lacking force. The images are spacious, luscious in their generosity (Schepisi is one of the few directors who knows how to use the wide screen), but that’s almost all there is. Schepisi could be a wonderful director—if he found a wonderful screenwriter. Lawrence O’Toole