Fred Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), a story of horrific violence caused by racial oppression, has a controversial place in the Australian social imaginary. As a raw narrative of a part-Aboriginal man's axe-murders of white women, the manhunt which followed, his eventual capture and death by hanging just after Australia achieved federation in 1900, the film was apparently constrained by the limited framework of representation of race relations available in the late 1970s. Audiences were left numbed by the image of a segregated society, the overpowering murder scenes and the disempowerment and downward spiral of Jimmie and his half brother Mort. Yet it has also been valued as a major film in the Australian new wave cinema and judged as ‘underestimated and overlooked’. This article approaches the film's mixed reception by re-examining it as a screen adaptation of Thomas Keneally's novel, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972), arguing that Schepisi used an expressionist cinematography to convert Keneally's ‘ironic epic’ (Hodge and Mishra 1990: 59) into a fatalistic tragedy. In reconsidering the film in terms of its era, the article shows how the Australian landscape becomes a site of problematic race relations, overturning the myth of ‘innocent settlement’ that is associated with films of the Australian Film Commission (AFC) genre, heralding post-Mabo films like Rabbit Proof Fence (Noyce, 2002), Ten Canoes (de Heer and Djigirr, 2006) and Jindabyne (Lawrence, 2007) whose stories and mise-en-scène acknowledge earlier traumas, inducing in viewers a belated shock of recognition (Collins and Davis 2004: 92).
- Fred Schepisi
- Thomas Keneally
- Aboriginal people and culture