Playing race relations for laughs


During the opening scene of the first episode of 8MMM Aboriginal Radio an Aboriginal staff member falls into an open grave and dies. The scene is played for laughs. There couldn’t be a clearer signal that no sensitivities will be spared in this comedy series out of Alice Springs which will start going to air on ABC television this Wednesday. So how funny is it?
Hundreds of locals, black and white, including the series’ many extras and actors in major and minor roles, turned up for a free public screening of the first two episodes on the Town Council lawns on Sunday night (pictured below). Laughter was a little nervous in response to the boundary-breaking opener. It proved easier to go with scenes where characters were being shown up for their foolishness. Despite the promotional targeting of “missionaries, mercenaries and misfits” – typically white blow-ins – the humour of the first two episodes was fairly evenly at the expense of both black and white characters. DJ Jampijinpa (Zac James), who has discovered his Aboriginality six months ago, is every bit as ridiculous as Koala (Laura Hughes), the white volunteer in love with Aboriginal people, their culture, their cute babies, not to mention their young men.
The best laughs though come not so much from playing to type as from playing well-scripted scenes with well-placed punch lines or gags. In Episode One Lola (Trisha Morton-Thomas) has the best of these at the expense of the ignorant and cynical training manager Dave (Geoff Morrell). One, her delivery of a killer stare at the end of a farcical staff meeting, comes from Lola’s sheer force of personality; the other though plays cleverly with naïve notions of Aboriginal magical powers – mumbo jumbo in Dave’s book until he finds himself momentarily hoodwinked.
The audience also showed its appreciation of satire leaning towards the political, focussed on a Commonwealth housing program with shoddy or ridiculous results, a long way from meeting people’s needs. The satirical touch was light but satisfyingly to the point. Small details were there without being laboured, such as the graffiti on the community’s welcome sign, saying “if you want porn, go to Canberra” – quoting a famous graffiti in reaction to the Intervention’s infamous blue signs about bans on alcohol and pornography in “prescribed communities”.
p2232-8MMM-3-huntersHow much will an audience not closely in tune with recent Northern Territory history get these touches? Another brief scene whose point might confuse some, is the exchange between the General Manager in training, the pale-skinned and blue-eyed Aboriginal Jessie (Shari Sebbens) and a security guard of African origin (as many now are in Alice), with the darkest skin. As he throws her out of the government offices where she has gone to complain about the state of her refurbished house, Jessie appeals to him: “We’re both black.”
By Episode Two though even the audience least familiar with the local scene should be getting that being “black” for Aboriginal people is not a matter of skin colour as much as connection to family and community. But don’t think that cultural reverence is starting to sneak in. The appearance of two lawmen, painted up with the fearsome red ochre and red headbands of ceremonial business, is entirely played for laughs. The two amateur actors, Hamilton Morris and Tommy Morton (above, with Zac James), are naturals, in performances and with drollery reminiscent of the great Gulpilil. The hunting scenes (top) featuring them are the highpoints of this episode.
Another scene pushing the envelope of a sensitive issue also manages to stay the right side of comic. It involves poor Jampijinpa, struggling to establish his credentials all round, being initiated into drinking, to prove himself a man. His Nan, in a great cameo by the feisty Amoonguna local Marie Elena Ellis, soon sorts him and the other boozers out. Not such big men after all!
p2232-8MMM-MillyWith the setting and characters well established in Episode One, the comedy hits its stride in Episode Two. Accumulated short sharp scenes for the receptionist, Milly, has actor Elaine Crombie (left) reliably delivering laughs with her acerbic responses to both Dave and Koala, the faces of the “no respect” and “too much respect” poles between which 8MMM steers its humourous take on race relations in the Alice Springs of now. I for one will be looking forward to more as the series continues.
Just before leaving home for Sunday’s public screening the news alert for the online publication new matilda arrived in my inbox. The lead item in the subject box: “Dirty, Black F**ks: Business as usual in Alice”, referred to an article about recent posts by online vigilantes in Alice Springs. They may well deserve whatever criticism they get, but Alice Springs as a whole does not. These attitudes are not “business as usual” here – if they were they wouldn’t be newsworthy. And what would the snide writer of that subject line have to say about yesterday’s gathering of black and white locals across the social spectrum, laughing together and well supported by prominent citizens including councillors, the Mayor and the Chief Minister? That writer might learn a thing or two by watching 8MMM.
Note: 8MMM Aboriginal Radio is a Brindle Films and Princess Pictures Production, written by Trisha Morton-Thomas, Danielle MacLean and Sonja Dare, and directed by Dena Curtis and Adrian Russell Wills. It cost some $3million to make, with half of that spent in Alice Springs.
Comic take on clash of cultures



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