Black and White
Principal Cast and Credits:
Craig Lahiff. Lahiff previously directed Heaven's Burning (1997), Ebbtide (1994) and Fever (1988). Lahiff also directed in television, namely for Strangers (1990/II) and Coda (1987).
Louis Nowra. Nowra previously wrote for The Matchmaker (1997), and Map of the Human Heart (1992). Nowra has also written several plays including Radiance (1998) and Cosi (1996). Nowra also worked as a writer in television in shows such as The Last Resort (1988) and Displaced Persons (1984).
Helen Leake. It was Leake's idea for Lahiff to take up the story of Rupert 'Max' Stuart's case as a new film project. "A real life story with serious issues appealed to me, and Helen Leake suggested the Stuart case." (www.urbancinefile.com.au)
Nik Powell. Powell began his career as an executive producer in 1984 with the film The Company of Wolves. Some of his well-known works include The Crying Game (1992), Fever Pitch (1997), and Little Voice (1998).
Geoffrey Simpson ACS. Simpson began working as a cinematographer in 1981 in the feature film Centrespread. Simpson has been a cinematographer in several successful films including Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), Green Card (1990), Little Women (1994) and Shine (1996).
Robert Carlyle. Carlyle is a respected English actor who began his feature film career in 1990 in the movie Silent Scream. Carlyle has had several notable performances in Trainspotting (1996), Angela's Ashes (1999), and The Full Monty (1997).
Charles Dance. Dance began his acting career in television in 1975 in the mini series Edward the King. Successful recent films which he has participated in include Last Action Hero (1993), and Gosford Park (2001).
Kerry Fox. Fox's role as Carlyle's partner in law in Black and White was far too small a role for her to show off her usually excellent acting skills. For this reason many critics wrote poorly of her. "O'Sullivan's off-sider, played by Kerry Fox, looks and sounds like a refugee from TV's Perry Mason." (McFarlane 2003: p.54)
Colin Friels. Friels had his feature film debut in 1981 in Prisoners. Successful films in which Friels has acted include High Tide (1987) and The Man Who Sued God (2001).
Ben Mendolsohn. Mendolsohn, although only playing the rather small role of the young Rupert Murdoch in Black and White, received critical acclaim for his portrayal of the media mogul. "In the acting stakes, the best work comes from Mendolsohn, in his small but impressive turn" (Stratton 2002: P.3)
David Ngoombujarra. Ngoombujarra had a difficult role to play as the bewildered Max Stuart, but he too received praise from the critics. "Ngoombujarra beautifully conveys the bewilderment but at the same time the ambivalence of the accused man" (Stratton 2002: P.3)
Australian Release: 31 October 2002 (advance screenings October 25, 26, 27 2002)
Interviews: An interview with director Craig Lahiff can be found at www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?a=6709&s=Interviews
Published Reviews and Essays:
Stratton, D (2002) "Black and White" (Movie review.) Variety v.387 p.30 (2), Reed Business Information.
McFarlane, B (2003) "Back Tracking: Brian McFarlane considers racial matters and their historical representation in recent Australian cinema." Meanjin Company Ltd.
Presence in Web Literature:
www.imdb.com: Contains film synopsis by Noel Bailey, rating of film, and list of credits.
www.sbs.com.au/movieshow/review.php3?id=995: Contains review and ratings on Black and White by Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton.
www.sydneyfilmfestival.org/2002proram/feature.asp?id=BLA001: Contains a synopsis of the film.
www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?a=6676&s=Reviews: Contains a synopsis of the film, reviews of the film by Andrew L.Urban and Louise Keller, and also contains an interview with director Craig Lahiff.
Collection of Information
The collection of reviews and synopsis was relatively easy to do through the use of suggested websites such as www.urbancinefile.com.au and www.imdb.com. Also through the Murdoch library databases, in particular the Expanded Academic database I was able to allocate a critical essay on Black and White called "Back Tracking: Brian McFarlane considers racial matters and their historical representation in recent Australian cinema" (2003) as well as another, longer, review of Black and White by David Stratton which appeared in Variety (2002). Other websites which provided useful reviews and synopsis of Black and White included: the SBS movie show website www.sbs.com.au/movieshow/review which had an archive of reviews by Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton; also the Sydney Film Festival's website www.sydneyfilmfestival.org had a synopsis of Black and White as well as details of its premier date there. For my review of Black and White I had difficulty locating interviews with the cast and crew. While Hollywood film actors and directors seem to have many interviews available on the web, I found only one interview with director Craig Lahiff on his movie Black and White (www.urbancinefile.com.au)- and no interviews with any of the cast. In terms of box office figures, I was unable to retrieve any figures without subscription to either www.urbancinefile.com.au or www.imdb.com.
Critical Review of Black and White; and its Literature
Black and White is based on the true story of Rupert "Max" Stuart's arrest and trial for the rape and murder of a young girl in Ceduna, South Australia in 1958. This film delves into issues of justice and racism as Stuart's lawyer David O'Sullivan (played by Robert Carlyle) argues that Stuart's confession was a result of police brutality. O'Sullivan's protests are continually met by a wholly conservative South Australian judicial system represented in part by prosecutor Roderic Chamberlain (played by Charles Dance). This film also explores the power of the media in the judicial system as it follows the young Rupert Murdoch's (played by Ben Mendolsohn) role in bringing the Stuart case to prominence through his Adelaide newspaper.
In truth the original story of Rupert Stuart has all the elements needed for a very powerful film, Black and White does not however seem to properly capitalize on these elements- thus simply turning out to be a somewhat forgettable film. The main reason for Black and White's lack of real resonance lies in its inability to move away from the original Stuart case. The film seems to dogmatically follow the story in a rather straight-forward and old-fashioned manner. The year 2002 was most notable in the Australian film industry for its prevalence of feature films focusing on Aboriginal issues. The main films in question were Tracker, Australian Rules, Rabbit Proof Fence and of course Black and White. While any film which attempts to analyse Aboriginal issues is met with some praise for this effort, these films were disappointingly didactic in nature. This proved to be a huge failing point in each of these films, which while successfully raising Aboriginal issues, could not attach any real resonance to these issues. Unfortunately being didactic wasn't the only disappointing factor in Black and White, in terms of acting the character of David O'Sullivan seems to be played by Robert Carlyle with an air of indifference. This is saddening as it is this character which could powerfully push forward the message of injustice which is central to Stuart's story. Another bad choice in the film is its indecisiveness on whether Stuart is innocent. It is most disconcerting after convincing the audience of Stuart's innocence throughout the film to suddenly question it in the scene where Prosecutor Roderic Chamberlain (played by Charles Dance) brings up new evidence of Stuart's guilt. This confusion is further heightened in the last scene of the film in which the real Rupert Stuart talks ambiguously about his own guilt. The film would have been more powerful if it had from the beginning chosen to be ambiguous about Stuart's guilt, rather than introducing this ambiguity three-quarters of the way into the film. The film does have positive aspects in that it manages to create very convincingly 1950s Australia. Also the soundtrack by a very talented Cezary Skubiszewski underscores the film beautifully. The best performance most certainly comes from David Ngoombujarra who plays Stuart with both integrity and credibility. Ben Mendolsohn also plays the part of the young Rupert Murdoch very convincingly.
Black and White did receive praise by some critics for picking up the story of the Stuart case thus challenging the Australian judicial system and exploring issues of racism "It slices open the social (black) heart of this society merely 50 years ago, to reveal it as not only racist and sexist but class-driven to boot." (Urban: www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view) Most critics, however, were disappointed by the film. While critics agree that the content of the film was both interesting and important "'Black and White' contains all the ingredients for a hard-hitting, attention-grabbing box office attraction" (Stratton 2002: P.31) Most critics were disappointed with the treatment of such good content and found Craig Lahiff's exploration of the content quite unsatisfying. "This should have been a fascinating Australian film on an important theme, but the treatment is surprisingly prosaic" (Stratton: www.sbs.com.au/movieshow/reviews) I agree that while the story Craig Lahiff chose to tell of the Stuart case was a good choice, his determination to stick to the story is his downfall and the messages about injustice, racism and sexism seem to thus lose their power. Black and White could have been a very shocking film which would have caused its audience to self-reflect on their own experiences as Australians; rather the didactic treatment of the film allows audiences to sit back from the happenings on screen and to walk away from the cinema relatively unaffected. Another major criticism of Black and White was that it oversimplified issues of racism in 1950s Australia. "The title obviously captures the racial resonances of the film's story but just as obviously, if inadvertently, signals the story's simplification of the issues in the interest of melodramatic courtroom confrontation." (McFarlane 2003: P.59) This is an interesting criticism of Black and White and it is one which I am not wholly comfortable with. I believe that one of the positives of the film was its unflinching exposition of racism in the judicial system. I believe it may at times be an unwillingness to accept such blatant racism that causes critics to demand that such racism was more complex than it appeared in Black and White. "[S]ome might complain that the judiciary and the police are portrayed in the sort of black and white terms that would justify the title, but sadly, that's probably a criticism born of wishful thinking- that it couldn't have been that bad." (Urban: www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view)
The Director- Craig Lahiff
Craig Lahiff's choice of story, of the Stuart case, sees quite a departure from his previous work as a director. This is something Craig Lahiff himself admits in an interview "After his last film in 1997, Heaven's Burning starring Russell Crowe, Lahiff says he wanted to do something very different."(www.urbancinefile.com.au) Both Craig Lahiff's previous works, Heaven's Burning (1997) and Ebbtide (1994), are thrillers. Both films were far more poorly received than Black and White. Heaven's Burning is summarised by Dave Nusair as telling "the story of a man and a woman who are inexplicable thrown together, amid violence and chaos. They quickly find themselves on the run from many adversaries, but find time to fall in love along the way." (http://us.imdb.com/plot) Heaven's Burning was written by Louis Nowra, who also worked as a writer on Black and White. Ebbtide, on the other hand, is summarized on www.imdb.com as "A lawyer falls in love with a murder suspect." Ebbtide starred Harry Hamlin, Judy McIntosh and John Waters (III). Both Ebbtide and Heaven's Burning can be described as 'flops'. Black and White is thus quite a refreshing change of direction for Craig Lahiff, and quite a welcome one. While Black and White received some criticism, it was much more widely viewed than Lahiff's previous works. Perhaps with better direction of his actors and a willingness to use other writers- Lahiff can be foreseen as a future great director.
Positioning Black and White
Black and White as a reflection of the general position of Australian cinema is a difficult and interesting study. While I do not have the exact box office numbers for Black and White, it is evident that this film was not a box office hit. "Sadly, the surprisingly prosaic treatment [in Black and White] fails to take advantage of the provocative material, which will result in muted returns both in Australia and, even more, elsewhere." (Stratton 2002: P.31) Although in many ways Black and White can be seen as quite particular to Australia due to its focus on a historical event which raises the issues of injustice towards Aboriginal people- this is not the reason that it did not achieve international success. The reason that this film did not obtain international success was its didactic nature. This reason for failure overseas is interesting because it is not a characteristic that is only particular to Black and White. In fact Black and White can be placed along with a few other films, namely Tracker, Australian Rules and Rabbit Proof Fence, as a recent and unexpected movement in Australian cinema to raise Aboriginal issues through film. With the exception perhaps of Rabbit Proof Fence, the reason that none of these films achieved international success was their unfortunate tendency to be quite didactic. Of this new wave of film making it was Black and White which failed most with the domestic audience. I can only suggest as a viewer that perhaps the reason for this was that Black and White seems to evoke the least self-reflection among its audience. Where as audiences should leave Black and White questioning their place within Australia and its judicial system- the straight forward nature of the film allows the audience to separate themselves from the plot and thus the film has no real resonance. Thus as a reflection of the nature and value of Australian cinema, Black and White foregrounds a recent move by filmmakers towards creating films which raise Aboriginal issues- unfortunately it also foregrounds the failure of most of these filmmakers to produce truly compelling films about these issues.
Black and White as part of a national Australian cinema
Black and White is a film which is of course affected by its nature as part of an Australian national cinema, and its status as a medium sized English-language cinema. The main characteristic of Australian cinema is its opposition to Hollywood. Hollywood cinema is dominant both in the international market to which Australia exports its films and within its own domestic market. To compete with Hollywood, Australian films have to be at once distinctive from Hollywood and yet not too different. O'Regan suggests that Australian films "need[s] to be similar to yet different from the high budget Hollywood product. Too similar, and the competition from the major Hollywood product is too evident, with the local product being compared too negatively. Too different, and the local and international audience can be alienated and trained into accepting Hollywood protocols as they are." (O'Regan 1996: P.96) In fact Australian cinema not only competes with the Hollywood film but also to a lesser extent the British film. For Australian cinema this means "the problems of both its own distinctiveness and its own capacity to pass for being American and British" (O'Regan 1996: P.97). Black and White as part of Australian cinema and thus dealing with its status as an English-speaking medium sized cinema, attempts to be competitive domestically and overseas by including well-known British actors- namely Robert Carlyle and Charles Dance- in its cast. However, as discovered in the 1970s the only truly guaranteed way of ensuring domestic and international success is in the creation of a true quality film. "Only the quality film had the right local and international inflection." (O'Regan "1970s": P.13) By quality I do not, however, merely hark back to the period pieces favoured in the 1970s. Rather by quality I am suggesting that Black and White in its inability to create a sense of real resonance thus lost its ability to succeed in the domestic and international markets. Hence Black and White could not overcome its status as part of an English-speaking medium sized Australian cinema.
McFarlane, B (2003) "Brian McFarlane considers racial matters and their historical representation in recent Australian cinema." Meanjin vol. 62, issue. 1
Stratton, D (2002) "Black and White (movie review)" Variety vol.387, issue 6; Reed Business Information.
O'Regan, T (1996) Australian National Cinema, Routledge, London.
O'Regan, T "Australian Film in the 1970s: the ocker and the quality film."
The Urban Cinefile Webite: www.urbancinefile.com.au; author- Andrew Urban
The imdb Website: www.imdb.com
The SBS Movie Show Review website: www.sbs.com.au/movieshow/reviews.php3?id=995
The '49th Sydney Film Festival' Website: www.sydneyfilmfestival.org/2002 program/feature.asp?id=BLAC001