Mabo is aimed at a general audience — both non-Aboriginal people, including school-children, wishing to be educated about some momentous events in Australia’s recent history, as well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people whose struggles it documents. For those more familiar with the legal and political debates surrounding native title, the film sheds some interesting sidelights. It depicts the way Koiki Mabo’s 30-year absence from the island was used against him in legal argument, as well as the way the complications in his own genealogy and upbringing, including his adoption by Benny Mabo, were used to cast doubt upon the validity of his inherited claim. It also portrays well the generation gap between those, like Eddie, with political awareness and some education in the white people’s world, and older, uneducated Islanders, steeped in traditional ways, but accustomed since birth to deferring unquestioningly to white authority. As the film shows, these differences can be exploited to drive divisions among Aboriginal plaintiffs whose interests should theoretically be aligned — a familiar story in land rights cases.
The film wisely steers clear of legal complexities. No doubt this is a good thing, although some will find its treatment of the legal issues superficial, and at times its’ portrayal of lawyers as a class veers into caricature. One sequence features the plaintiffs’ legal team jumping from a dinghy and wading through knee-deep water onto Murray Island (‘Captain Cook all over again’ comes the wisecrack). Later they share a traditional and no doubt very warm Islander feast — all the time in full wig and gown. It would be interesting to know if this extreme example of legal fastidiousness forms part of the Islanders’ oral history of these events.
The film’s great strength is undoubtedly its ability to strip away the legal complexity and depict a human story. It portrays well what many Australians, tired of the endless petty point-scoring of debate on the subject, can tend to forget — that the Mabo story is essentially a struggle for justice. It makes it easy for the non-Indigenous viewer to empathise — or at least have the experience of empathising — with an Islander point of view. At times, it does this at the cost of some of the subtleties. While we come to know Koiki Mabo and his foibles pretty well, we know little of other characters, including the non-Indigenous lawyers who also sacrificed in his cause. But then, this is deliberate. It is intended to be an Indigenous story. It succeeds in that it places the Mabo story in the grand tradition of other struggles for land justice — most recently in South Africa — whose essence is easier to grasp, precisely because its detail is further removed from us in Australia.
STEPHEN GRAY teaches law at Monash University.