The question of just what is black is inescapable in the Australian movie, “The Sapphires,” as well as who can pass. By pass, I mean who can pass for black or white or, more basically, something that you are not. Don’t worry, this movie is a sugar-coated, feel-good tale of a black girl group that finds opportunity and maturity entertaining American troops during the Vietnam War.
Passing, has its advantages. I can pass for Chinese in Hong Kong or Taiwan at a disadvantage because my Mandarin is poor. I can pass as Chinese in Korea where some have prejudices against the Japanese. I can’t pass for white and it’s not easy to pass as American or Japanese. You soon learn that some people look at your face and not your body language.
The movie, “The Sapphires” takes on passing for white as well as four women passing as black Americans on stage. We first see them in 1958 as a group of Aboriginal girls–two sisters and two cousins–who are singing for their relatives on a makeshift stage. We already know that not all is well because we’ve been told by subtitles that there was a Stolen Generation of children. In the crowd, we see some light-skinned faces and know something bad will and has already happened.
The Australian government stole away light-skinned children of the indigenous Australians, taking them from their families and putting them in institutions run by religious or charitable organizations. Sometimes they were fostered out. The practice began in 1909 and continued until 1970.
What the movie doesn’t say is that most of the women were trained to be domestics and the men to be agricultural labor. The 2002 Australian movie “Rabbit-Proof Fence” looks at this practice, following three girls who escape and walk nine weeks to return to their Aboriginal families.
To put this practice in perspective, consider that there is also a generation of White Stolen children who were part of a forced adoption policy practiced in Australia between 1930 until 1982. The babies of unmarried women were taken in this case.
The practice of sending off poor or orphaned children began with the British. Vagrant children were gathered and sent to the Virginia Colony in 1618. Large numbers of children were forcibly sent to the colonies to help with labor shortages, only ending in 1757. The Children’s Friend Society (founded in London in 1830) sent children to South Africa, Australia and Canada.
In the United States, post-Revolutionary War, there were similar attempts to force cultural assimilation on Native Americans. While students weren’t kidnapped, there was evidence that some parents were coerced into signing up their children. At the schools and on the reservations, there were efforts to convert the Native Americans to Christianity (until the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
The U.S. military had only been desegregated in 1948 (Executive Order 9981). The Korean War (1950-1953) was the first war with desegregated troops. The Vietnam War (1955-1975) was the second military action with desegregated troops.
Black versus black
The question of just who is black in the Pacific Ocean was asked in “South Pacific” and raised again more recently with the casting in “Cloud Atlas.”
“The Sapphires” are black in the Australian and British sense of the word and that covers a lot of ground outside of Africa. In this case, they begin as an innocent foursome singing for their relatives on a makeshift stage but as adults, they have been whittled down to a trio. These three sisters enter a singing contest. Leading the sisters is the bossy eldest, Gail (Deborah Mailman who appeared in “Rabbit-Proof Fence”), who wants to sing lead but doesn’t have the voice. Julie (Jessica Mauboy) is the youngest, but she has the voice. Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) unwisely loves the attention of men too much. They are the only Aboriginal entrants and though their performance of a Merle Haggard country classic is better than the other white entrants, they lose.
The only two people at this rinky-dink contest who see their talent is one of the white entrants, a boy who has yet to learn the logic of racism, and the drunken white host, Dave, who has been living in his car.
Seeing their raw talent, Dave (Chris O’Dowd) helps them sing “blacker” by exposing them to the Motown sound, educating them on the blues. After a lot of practice and a sudden addition of a cousin, Kay (Shari Sebbens), who has been passing as white in the big city, they audition and win a spot on the entertainment roster for U.S. troops in Vietnam. In Vietnam, they become more confident and learn a bit about show business, American racism and the war.
The movie is as upbeat as the songs so there will be a happy ending and you get to learn more about the actual women this film is based on.
The movie began as a play by the same name written by Tony Briggs. The play debuted in 2004. Briggs based the play on the experiences of his mother, Laurel Robinson, and his aunt, Lois Peeler, who did tour Vietnam as singers in 1968.
Briggs created the fictional character of Dave Lovelace and Irish actor O’Dowd plays him as a charming, drunk. You’ll have to take this as an adult fairy tale to see a happy ending and believe in the happy, lovable alcoholic. Briggs wrote the movie’s screenplay with Keith Thompson.
Director Wayne Blair is an Indigenous Australian writer and actor and was in the original cast of the play. Blair captures the fun and development and keeps the socio-political aspects from getting too serious or grim.
The cast is authentically Indigenous Australian and none of the women is model-emaciated thin. Mailman is both Indigenous Australian and Māori and had the lead role in a 2010 musical movie called “Bran Nue Dae.” In the original play, she played Cindy.
Shari Sebbens is part English descent (father) and Indigenous Australian from her mother’s side.
Mauboy is part Indonesia (father) and part Indigenous Australian. Her talents was recognized when she finished fourth on season four of “Australian Idol.” She auditioned by singing Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing.” That should tell yo what kind of power she has in her voice.
Tapsell was born in Darwin, but raised in Kakadu, a national park which is both under the management of the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities and the Aboriginal traditional land owners.
Like Native Americans, Indigenous Australians have different groups that are identified based on the regional indigenous languages. So while the women are all Indigenous Australians, they are not all from the same region. That might be an issue for someone somewhere. And for the black versus black, we’ll take our cue from science.
Genetically, Indigenous Australians are closer to East Asians and Europeans than they are to Africans according to a DNA sequencing performed in 2012. The study concluded that their sample indicated the “Aborigine genome was found in one analysis to be genetically closer to East Asians than Europeans” there were also indications that suggested “the Aboriginal Australians split from the ancestral population of Eurasians, rather than from modern East Asian populations.”
Beyond genetics and history, “The Sapphires” is a feel-good movie with a cast that you can feel good about–no blackface or passing here.