In the otherwise forgettable 1985 potboiler Badge of the Assassin, there’s an exchange between a black cop and a black revolutionary that I think of often (it was also used as a sample in the incendiary 1992 single “Guerrillas in the Mist,” by Consolidated ft. Paris). The cop tells the revolutionary that what he did “doesn’t make any sense.” The revolutionary shouts, “It do not have to! It only has to get noticed. They have to understand — oppressing people costs!” Well, those last three words could serve as leitmotif for America these last few years, and also for the morally complex 1978 Australian drama The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. This film, perhaps still the greatest of Aussie cinema, is recommended to anyone who doesn’t understand why Ferguson burned — why it had to.
It’s the turn of the century in Australia, and eager young Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis), a “half-caste” (half white, half Aborigine), goes from one job to the next, being denied full proper wages for the work he does for casually racist white landowners. It gets harder and harder for Jimmie to hold his placatory smile in place, especially when he marries a white woman (Angela Punch) and she gets pregnant. Jimmie can’t support a wife and child on what he makes, and pretty soon some local women conspire to make sure Jimmie no longer even gets groceries in exchange for services rendered. The agenda, it’s clear, is to send Jimmie back to the squalor he’s trying so hard to transcend.
Jimmie has rejected the black world — the Aborigines are required to live in repulsive circumstances — and won’t be accepted into the white world. He’s a true nowhere man, and it drives him insane. He goes to the house of those meddling local women, accompanied by his not-entirely-with-it uncle, and before anyone knows what’s happening Jimmie has killed or maimed several of them with his axe, leaving only a crying infant alive. Thus begins a terrible, personal war on whoever has slighted Jimmie, and along the way he no longer leaves infants alive. He’s too far gone. The movie in no way justifies his rampage, but it has patiently laid the sociological groundwork so that we understand why it happened. Oppressing people costs.
Released in America two years after its Australian premiere, Chant was a calling card for the strong director Fred Schepisi, who soon moved to Hollywood; his best-known mainstream film is probably the superb Steve Martin rom-com Roxanne. Here, Schepisi works in a classical style, no funny business with the camera or with editing, just a clean and horrifying account of a man breaking down in insupportable conditions, his anguish both mocked and heightened by the wide-open spaces preserved in flawless widescreen compositions. The movie is gorgeous pure filmmaking even when we wince at the violence — and we do, because Schepisi doesn’t present it as cathartic or exciting. Especially not cathartic. Jimmie goes over the edge and it does nothing for him other than to get his cheerful half-brother (Freddy Reynolds) killed and to get his own face half shot-off.
Based on a novel by Thomas Keneally (Schindler’s List), which in turn was based on a true story, the film might these days, in more sensitive times, be called “problematic”: After all, does not Jimmie fulfill the whites’ jaundiced view of him as a savage? Yes, he does, and that’s the tragedy. Jimmie wanted so badly to be welcomed into white society (he was raised by a white minister and his wife), and when he was systematically rejected, he had no self to fall back on, no identity other than the “other” he was shown that he was. He had no choice but to become the “black bastard” his world insisted upon. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is both a national epic and a national nightmare, and of course the nightmare extends beyond Australia. It may trouble the sleep of anyone who is part of the white-privileged group, who scoffs at “Black Lives Matter,” who has knee-jerk racist panicky reactions to the mere presence of black people because they know deep down that oppressing people costs, and who knows when the bill will come due?