Up-to-date and Ahead: Arguments and Persuasive Language: an essay-writing guide (2017) helps students in Years 11/12 unlock the key to an A+ essay
Eddie Mabo’s struggle for justice
by Dr Jennifer Minter
Your essay will depend upon a clever use of the film techniques to analyse Rachel Perkin’s views, values and narrative intentions.
Released in 2012, Rachel Perkins film, Mabo, depicts the trials and tribulations associated with Eddie Kioki Mabo’s fight for his rights as a Meriam man. Concerned that their land is legally not their own, Mabo takes his fight to the High Court where he challenges the traditional, colonial perception of terra nullius. This legal concept, which considered Australia an empty country prior to white settlement, systematically denied the First Australians the legal and moral rights to their land. Perkins draws upon documentary-style footage to depict, as authentically as possible, the magnitude of Eddie’s struggle and to foreground the strength of his convictions as he wages a difficult battle with the powerful representatives of the Queensland and Federal Parliaments. However, against the tumultuous background of black activism, Perkins also depicts a story that is more powerful than Eddie. Through the juxtaposition of the white and black narratives, Perkins depicts the oppression faced by the First Australians on a daily basis and the groundswell of activism, both black and white, that is critical to Eddie’s success. By depicting Eddie symbolically as both father and son, Perkins also raises questions about their struggle for identity and their future in a changing world. Finally, Mabo also depicts a beautifully powerful love story. Netta’s love and devotion are critical to Eddie’s search for justice.
Cultural ties; father and son and natural leader
During the opening scenes, Perkins uses a variety of film techniques to accentuate cultural difference, such as the music of the Murray Islanders, their use of the Meriam language and sub-titles, and Indigenous customary law. (Much of their cultural belief systems revolve around the Malo-Bomai myth. The Murray Islanders have a historical tribal law called Malo’s law, named after the god Malo, who lived among the Murray Islanders many years ago. One villager, Sam Passi, stated in one court hearing that “the only real Murray Islander is one who follows Malo’s law”).
The Meriam Islanders and their cultural heritage is at the basis of their land rights claim that challenge the notion of terra nullius.
Contrastingly, the white man with his own laws and dialect/language comes belatedly to the land that he seeks to conquer. Eddie Mabo is shocked by Henry Reynold’s statement that he does not have “ownership rights” to the land on which he and his father and their forefathers have cultivated their livelihood.
- The opening scene strategically positions father and son as fisherman on their beach of their beloved Murray Island which highlights the intense connection with the land and the sea. Haunting indigenous music underpins their deeply personal bond. It is also symbolic of inter-generational ties and of the family links that are “active” and “unbroken” and that will form the basis of Koiki Mabo’s land rights claim. As a custodian of Meriam law, Benny tells Eddie that “everything here” on Murray Island is “yours” and that the land passes “from father to son”. Benny speaks in the Meriam language with subtitles to emphasise cultural difference and the Murray Islanders’ prior connection to the land.
- These flashbacks of father and son reoccur at critical moments in Eddie’s life as he sentimentally remembers his promise to his father (not to forget his cultural origins) and his obligation to Meriam customs and law. (Cultural differences are apparent in the customary court session, by indigenous elders, who remind Eddie, “you’re bound by the law”.) The tin box and a coconut from Murray Island sent by the father later serve as symbolic “reminder(s) of home”. David Passi explains: ‘Pesu’ is part of a coconut tree, and the law is, that if it falls to the ground, you must let it rot in the ground. And that of course feeds the soil”. It is part of the fertilisation process and must not be disturbed. (Significantly, Eddie also transmits this knowledge to his own son, ensuring that his children proudly recall stories of their own octopus creation story. The octopus is one of the changing shapes of the god Bomai. )
- The wide-angled photographic images of the mountainous land and the vastness of the sea capture the beauty of the landscape as well as the “Land is Me” attitude of the Murray Islanders. Accordingly, land is not just a territorial piece of physical land but a place of cultural and spiritual origin and pride.
- Phone: Perkins often uses the centrally-located public phone on the Murray Island beach to depict the technological isolation of the Islanders. Close-up images of the phone also enable Perkins to emphasise the different life-style of the islanders who still live subsistently. Indirectly, the phone also reinforces the first Australians’ consistent and traditional links to the land that entitle them to ownership. The hanging phone dominates one of the final scenes when Bonita conveys the landmark decision to the Murray Islanders.
- (The sense of expectation and “natural” entitlement contrast with the eventual shock at the news that Eddie does not have legal entitlement according to the Australian legal system.)
- Perkins also depicts Eddie’s relationship with his own son from a cultural perspective of continuity and inter-generational strength and knowledge. Just as Eddie’s father presumes that Eddie will be the custodian of Indigenous cultural values and spiritual knowledge, so too is Eddie intent to pass this knowledge on to his own son. The totemic story of the octopus reflects Perkins’ view that “ownership” of the land is much more than physical possession. According to the spiritual ancestors, on arriving at Mer, Malo (the law of the Meriam), originally a whale, took the form of an octopus, and became the god of the eight clans of the Meriam. He decreed that clans keep to their own paths and “swim with their own kind”.
- Furthermore, Eddie’s connection with his culture is shown in the scene where he receives the coconut in the mail while on the mainland. A medium close-up shot captures Eddie cradling the coconut in both hands and resting his head on it, as he remembers his father’s voice, “I’m sending you this coconut as a reminder of home”.
Eddie’s pride as Mabo’s son
Perkins juxtaposes Eddie’s love for his cultural heritage with his ironic exile from Murray Island, which serves to reinforce the strength of his ancestral ties and cultural differences. Contravening customary law creates a dilemma for Eddie who must either work as Killoran’s “slave” or find an alternative path on the “mainlaind”. From the beginning of the film, and at strategic moments throughout Eddie’s journey, Perkins positions father and son as fisherman on the edge of the island; from sweeping wide-angle perspectives, to close-up profiles, the camera draws the viewer’s attention to their intimacy as well as to the authority of Eddie’s father, as a source of wisdom.
- Admiringly, Eddie looks up to his father, whose respect he will seek to regain throughout his personal and collective journey.
- This father-and-son relationship becomes symbolic of inter-generational ties which imply automatic ownership of land and challenge the myth of terra nullius. The haunting soulful music which effectively works with the subtitles distinctly shows the cultural differences towards land held by Indigenous (“Everything here is yours”) and white Australians.
- The octopus totem, knowledge of which also passes from father to son, also symbolises the spiritual sense of belonging among the Meriam people.
- Under the influence of alcohol, Eddie was seen with a girl “in a compromising position,” which contravened customary law. The focus on these personal flaws generates the perception that Eddie, too, is flawed. Accordingly, one aspect of his journey is to regain his father’s respect and to prove his father wrong in his prediction that he will forget his cultural roots and ancestors.
Performing a tribal dance during one of the opening scenes, Eddie is positioned, naturally, in the centre of the group. Through the use of non-diegetic sound, Perkins includes the song of the Piadrem clan to reinforce Eddie’s charismatic personality and to suggest that he is being groomed by the Meriam elders to take on a leadership position. During his isolated hours on the mainstream, Eddie remembers ‘his people’: typical close up shots that capture his sentimental and conflicting emotions, also highlight the raw determination that engulfs Eddie whenever he recalls his homeland.
This position of centrality is evident in numerous scenes such as the march on May Day for equal pay, during which , holding a banner, “Equal Pay … for equal work”, Eddie Koika Mabo marched with other key Indigenous activists such as Charles Perkins, the director’s father, who also held the Ride for Freedom campaign in 1965. (Mabo’s predilection for reading the dictionary, and later his preoccupation with books in the library, also foreshadow his determination to act as a spokesperson for the First Australians.)
The political and social context: racism
- Perkins juxtaposes archival documentary-style footage of Eddie’s and Bonita’s experiences to depict the social, political and historical context of Eddie’s struggle for justice and equal rights.
- The contrasting attitudes initially held by Eddie and Bonita reflect the different responses of the First Australians. Bonita’s cooperative attitude, “We can’t afford to be troublemakers”, is typical of those who reluctantly endure persecution because they have become accustomed to defeat and hardship. Perkins suggests that Bonita’s attitude reflects years of ingrained racism, persecution and a conditioned sense of inferiority.
- Contrastingly, Eddie confidently believes that “People like us have no choice but to be troublemakers; because if we don’t we don’t have any pride left.” Eddie’s determination and confrontational attitude challenges racist beliefs; his vision stands as a beacon to the aborigines. With Bonita’s help he defies the stereotype of the drunken Indigenous Australian and gains status, esteem, and respect. His single-handed pursuit of his rights and determination in the justice of his cause also make him a natural leader.
Racism in Australia
- The black-and-white video footage of the cinema-goers highlights the extent of the discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s Australia during Eddie’s formative years. The cinema-goers are asked “Are Aboriginal people allowed to enter the cinema?” A young girl replies, “Yes, they go through that door there (pointing to the rear of the theatre) and sit in a different section”. The camera zooms in on the cinema door handle which dominates the frame; it becomes a stark symbol of exclusion and discrimination. This shows the extent to which Australians have been conditioned to accept the unofficial colour segregation rules and how White Australians intuitively perpetuate the ingrained stereotypes of the aborigines.
- The eerily sinister flashing lights and the blasting siren create an oppressive backdrop to the policeman who encounters Eddie one dark night as he walks home along the train tracks. The policeman’s blunt comment, “you know the drill. Empty your pockets” implies that such an encounter with the forces of law and order happen constantly in the lives of the aborigines. They are frequently typecast as drunk and disorderly criminals.
- Not only does Perkins focus on the discrimination but the paternalistic and racist attitude of the State Government. When Eddie is told he has to be punished, one of the chief clerks, Patrick Killoran (Rob Carlton), refers to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Protection Act and smugly explains to Eddie, using a very broad Australian accent, why aborigines need protection: “you’re too young and too hotheaded”, so “I protect you from yourself”. Proudly, Koiki Mabo refuses to work slavishly on the “green truck” (“for a red penny”). “I’m not working as a slave”.
Perkins uses archival footage to depict, as authentically as possible, Eddie Mabo’s participation in a variety of marches for justice such as the May Day march, which also reflect the increasing awareness of discrimination in the community. Proudly, he raises the banner, “Equal pay irrespective of colour.”
A love story
- Symbol: Symbolically and romantically, Bonita often refers to the first moment she saw Eddie, framed by the door, and silhouetted by the burning sun in the background. The camera zooms in on Bonita’s back profile, as she hangs up streamers during their cousin’s wedding. Slowly and dramatically she turns to focus on Eddie and their conversational banter about their names reinforces their intuitive love. This scene reinforces family ties but also the sun reflects Eddie’s leadership and iconic status. As Bonita says, “it was the moment I fell in love with you. I knew you were going to make history”. (Also her quiet dignity, charm, poise and moral strength enable Eddie to resist the “devil’s filth”.)
- Several times, Eddie and Bonita dance romantically; as their love strengthens and blossoms. One song, “is love strong enough” challenges the strength of their love. Bonita tells him, “you’re a drop of the hat sook”. As they dance, the words of the music, “only my will that keeps me alive”, captures both their spirit. (Jimmy Cliff’s non-indigenous song, “many rivers to cross”) – they will battle the hardships together.)
- Sacrifice and personal courage: Throughout, Bonita staunchly supports Eddie’s fight even though it often causes a great deal of hardship, such as the time she must, humiliated, beg the neighbour to look after the children. She has to do several jobs and Eddie, unbeknown to her, has spent most of the night in the lockup. Not only is she worried, but a lonely scene, poignantly captured by cinematographer Andrew Commiss, captures Bonita, heavily pregnant, riding her bike home at 2 am. A silhouette image ominously depicts her courage and struggle as she finds herself increasingly the breadwinner who binds the family together.
- Bonita refuses to leave the house: she will get into bed “same as I done every night for thirty years”
- Hint of violence because of the extreme stress: In a fit of frustration, when Eddie strikes Netta, the high-to-low angle camera perspective portrays Netta’s feeling of powerlessness.
- Aware of his impending death, Eddie’s love letter to Bonita expresses his heartfelt gratitude at her support: he regrets he did not spend more time at home: “what a beautiful bunch … never knew how hard it was for you to grow up. Sorry I didn’t help you more.”.
- She is instrumental to his transformation as symbolised by his costume change from ragged and torn clothes on the hot and dry railroads to the black suit at court fighting the Queensland government.
As an activist and leader
- In one particular mise-en-scene early in the film, Perkins captures Eddie’s transformation to activist. Normally, the First Australians are served “out the back”. This time, Eddie sits in the public bar determined to be served along with his fellow workers. The close-up shot of the hotel door symbolises the exclusive policies of the publican (hotel owner) who refuses to serve “Aboriginal” people in the bistro. Perkins juxtaposes (puts side by side) shots of Eddie with those of the other (white) hotel guests and union members. Eddie’s humiliation and anger are clear as he sits by himself with his lonely sign: “I’m not leaving until I get a drink”.
- Contrastingly, his fellow union workers do not support his cause. (Hypocritically, they exploit Eddie when it suits, but do not support his protest.) At one stage the union leader encourages Eddie to voice his concerns, “if you wanna raise stuff mate, do it yourself. You’ve got a voice, haven’t ya?”, but they leave him alone to voice discrimination. (Their lack of support in the hotel contradicts the union leader’s earlier claim to Eddie, “works two ways, Eddie. We help you blokes by helping our own and vice versa.”) Perkins suggests that there is distinct absence of reciprocation when it counts.
- Once again, Bonita reflects the attitude that activists are communists and encourages caution; Eddie reminds Bonita that it’s “not against the law to be in the union. Not against the law to be black.”
- As an activist, Eddie later resigns in protest at the reduction in his pay: “They cut my pay; they put me on the shore with a sledgehammer.” Koiki Mabo marches with the unions on May Day raising a banner, “Equal pay irrespective of colour.” Once again, archival footage of the historical May Day march blends with Eddie’s and Bonita’s proud faces in the crowd.
- Eddie joins the Aboriginal Advancement League in Cairns because he realises that progress can only come through solidarity. “They lobby, they fundraise and they fight to make things better.” (Previously reading a dictionary while taking a break on the railway lines, Mabo educates himself in the library at the James Cook University thus drawing the attention of Noel Loos.)
- Henry Reynolds warns him, “it’s not an easy path, the road of the activist. “Special branch has files on everyone; they know every move you make; they will find a way to silence you.” Indeed, during one scene, a member of ASIO films Eddie marching. Ominously, the clicking of the camera becomes a stark reminder of the powerful voices that seek to silence Eddie. Eddie wonders, “what more can they do to me that they haven’t already done.” (One mis-en-scene focuses on the surveillance tactics employed by ASIO. The loud clicking sounds of the camera and the threatening phone calls reinforce the inherent dangers in Eddie’s legal quest. Eventually, the tension mounts and even Eddie becomes abusive to Netta during a very low and desperate moment in his life.)
Political and legal context
Real-life historians (Henry Reynolds) and groundbreaking legal experts (Ron Castan and Bryan Keon Cohen) also provide an authentic backdrop to the historical events. A critical turning point in Eddie’s fight for justice occurs when Henry Reynolds stuns Eddie with the information that “the land is technically not yours”. Eddie retorts: “We’ve been farming on that place since before you mob set foot on that land. We handed down from father to son-how can we not own it?” “You think some white fella sticking a Union Jack in the sand wipes out sixteen generations.”
A close-up camera shot captures Eddie’s fierce determination and indignation as he tells Henry Reynolds: “We have been farming on that place since before you set foot on it. We hand it down from father to son. How can we not own it?” I own that land as much as we own this house. I can prove it five generations at least.” I’m a Piadrem man.”
He tells the family, “I’m gonna make history. I’m the son of Benny Mabo . . . I’m taking the government to court to get our land.”
The legal challenge is so significant that the briefing solicitor tells the barrister, “You’re gonna have to think carefully Bryan. It’ll pretty much shape the rest of your career” — the briefs he will get and those he won’t.
The fight for justice, ethnically and legally, makes Eddie a constant target of the authorities. He asks Henry Reynolds, “what more can they do to me that they haven’t already done?”. The ASIO officer pursues him, taking photos of his activities; but nevertheless Eddie tells Bonita to the backdrop of the romantic song, “only my will that keeps me alive”; “may as well curl up and die right now” if he did not pursue the fight. Also Bonita refuses to move. “It’s my home.”
A fight for justice; a fight for human rights and for land rights
- Perkins opens the film with news clips of the contrasting state and federal views with regards to potential land rights claims. This state and federal conflict is central to the film and informs critical decisions undertaken by Eddie. (These contrasting views also provide the dramatic backdrop of the film.)
- The Prime Minister at the time, Paul Keating is supportive, “Mabo establishes a fundamental truth and lays the basis for justice.” (The Federal Racial Discrimination Act 1975, introduced by the Whitlam Labour Government, will become critical to the basis of Eddie’s land claim.
- This is Eddie’s fight; but it is also a fight for the rights of all First Australians; it is also a fight for justice and for human rights. Eddie instinctively and intuitively fights for his rights as a Meriam man, (“it’s not against the law to be black”) and seeks to prove their prior ownership of the land.
- Perkins shows that the stronger and the more oppressive the state becomes, then the more Eddie must rely on the strength of his conviction to succeed.
- The black-and-white video clips relating to Joh Bjelke Peterson’s scaremongering campaign depict the powerful opposition that seeks to sideline and ridicule Eddie’s fight; viewers are able to recognise in a more objective sense the degree to which the politicians and officials intimidate Eddie. Bjelke Peterson is brutally frank, “it’s a clever snide way of getting something for nothing.” Another time, he suggests they are greedily seeking the royalties from the uranium mines and “getting away with murder”. Right from the opening scene, which shows media coverage of the controversy, Perkins also suggests that the media is complicit in the powerful attempt to oppress the aborigines’ rights. (The Premier states, they are “plotting violence and disorder … and until their intentions are known, they will not be tolerated by the Government”.) The negative portrayal of the aborigines as duplicitous, treacherous and opportunistic foreshadows Eddie’s long and difficult fight for justice. (The contrasting views between the State and Federal Governments as evident in Paul Keating’s contrasting comments provide much of the dramatic tension in the film.)
- Patrick Killoran also scornfully tells him, “You always were one to get above yourself, Eddie”. (His character symbolises and reflects the Government’s paternalistic view of aborigines who must be protected and “helped”);
- The State seeks to divide the three claimants, Eddie Mabo, David Passi and James Rice.
- They tarnish Eddie’s reputation and suggest that he is greedy and that he entertains delusions about becoming a ruler. (1990) His legal fight is discredited in the Supreme Court. He remarks, they thought I was “greedy” and “selfish”. which sparks an angry altercation with Netta.
- Eddie realises the extent of their legal powers when the state government passes laws to “kill us off”. The Queensland Government reacted to the land rights claim by passing the Queensland Coast Islands Declaratory Act 1985 (Qld) which decreed that the Torres Strait Islander rights and claims had been extinguished in 1879 when the islands came under the rule of the Queensland government.
Narrow Focus on adopted versus biological family:
Judge Moynihan’s case in the Supreme Court concluded that whilst there is some merit in the land rights claim, such a claim is not applicable to Eddie Mabo, the adopted son of Benny and his aunt, Maigo. Although they adopted Eddie after his mother’s death as a toddler, this did not mean that the land would automatically pass to Eddie.
- Strikingly, David Passi was encouraged to bow out of the trial, but he would have had a greater chance of success. One wonders whether a white adopted child would have had greater familial rights?
- During the trial in the Supreme Court of Queesland, O’Callaran manipulates the unsuspecting David Passi and his criticisms of Eddie go deep. He also alarms David with the realisation that a loss would mean large costs. “You can’t win”, and he discredits Eddie as a “smooth talker”. He further unsettles him: Eddie has the backing of the “Melbourne silks”; but David would be unprotected, or so he seems to suggest. David immediately gets on the phone. He intimidates him by suggesting that he is undermining “Joh” and Joh is not happy. After all their houses “need painting”. (Later Killoran tells Eddie that he is one to “get ahead of yourself”).
- The Judge bases his findings on a narrow-reading of “family” as well as on an unworthy characterisation of Eddie’s character.
- In terms of family, the Judge believes that the defence case is using irrelevant examples to prove that there is a link between land and cultural associations and connections. Ron Castan, (barrister) believes that the notion of burial grounds is integral to Meriam indigenous cultural traditions.
- The Judge made a mockery of Ron’s questions regarding the burial. The Judge tended the analogy of the King Square, which just about summed up his whole attitude to Eddie’s case – an irrelevant search by a gold-digger.
A personal journey
On a personal level, Eddie wishes to prove his father’s prediction wrong. He does not go to the mainland and “forget everything”. Owing to his cultural pride, he is desperate to gain his father’s respect for his monumental fight for justice for the Meriam people.
Sadly, the Protection Board does not grant Eddie permission to return to Murray Island to see his dying father. A close-up shot shows an anxious Eddie, urgently, waiting for his pass. He sends the indigenous officer back to the office several times, but the answer is always in the negative. Dejected, he realises he will not make up to his beloved father and give him the chance to be proud of his son. (The audience once again is positioned to sympathetically side with Eddie’s outrage: “They have been doing this to me since I was 19 years old”) Typically, the camera zooms in on the scornful gaze of Patrick Killoran, who derisively, tells Eddie, “You always were one to get above yourself, Eddie”. (His character symbolises and reflects the state’s paternalistic view of aborigines who must be protected and helped).
Eddie always dreams of taking his family home to Murray island. While courting Bonita, Eddie tells her, sentimentally, while sitting on the beach, “I’m gonna take you to Murray one day”. His love and pride in his cultural origins are evident in all his actions. After he marries Bonita, Eddie informs his parents, “I’m coming back for sure.” He paints the sacred mountains as a reminder of his strong ties.
On his sick bed, he urges Bonita to one day take his remains and the family back to his beloved Murray Island.
On 3 June 1992 six of the seven High Court Judges ruled: ‘The Meriam people are entitled as against the whole world, to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of the lands of the Murray Islands’
The High Court judge states: “The nation as a whole must remain diminished unless and until there is an acknowledgment of and a retreat from those past injustices.”
After an 11-year fight, Eddie Mabo died of cancer in February 1992, just 4 months before this historic high court ruling that would change Australian land law. The historic judgement overturned the idea of terra nullius and claimed that native title survived in many places, even though the land had been taken by the Crown.
Please do a critical short list of the film techniques and think about the director’s views and values.
See notes on Social Context