Review of Jack Charles: Born Again Blakfella (2019)/Bastardy (2008)

Note from gacowan: My apologies for the delay between blog entries. I just finished a long term project that took up a large chunk of my free time. I promise to update this blog more often!

Growing up as a middle class, Anglo-Saxon, straight and socially awkward male in country Australia, my relationship with victims of substance and sexual abuse, and members of the indigenous, homeless, prisoner or LGBTQ+ communities was never one where I could say that I had any experience with any of those demographics that wasn’t either ephemeral or superficial. Anyone from outside my white and rural upbringing was someone who was seen on television or read about in books, but not someone I actually knew.

Photo by iiii iiii on Pexels.com
I was never this chic, though I tried to be in my own way

I first labeled myself as being what currently is referred to as ‘woke’ when I was 17. Yet my understanding of what that meant was restricted to outward cultural labels and consumption habits (some would argue, with some justification, that it is still defined by some of these things). To me, a tolerant and empathetic human being was someone who recycled and took public transport, who helped the poor by giving to charity, who watched the ABC and read Fairfax newspapers, who hung around hipster cafes in Northern Melbourne or Sydney’s inner west, who listened to indie music and watched arthouse films. To me, this type of thinking was equated with my inherent value as a person. The harsh truth was that I was feigning empathy to outwardly define my lifestyle as being worthwhile when the truth was that I associated with these beliefs out of an innate sense intellectual snobbery. If actually confronted with someone who polite society designated as an ‘undesirable’, I was likely to have been overwhelmed by acute twinges of anxiety and unease. It was also likely that once the encounter was over, I’d have made light of their situation to try to get the social approval of those around me.

I hope that my worldview has broadened since then and that I am a more astute, humble, self aware and genuinely compassionate person than I was 22 years ago (though that’s really not for me to make a judgement on). Yet, I felt my conscience nagging me about how much I really knew about genuine hardship when watching Bastardy and reading Jack Charles: Born Again Blakfella. This book and movie recount the life of actor, musician, Indigenous activist, cat burglar, former heroin addict and 2016 Senior Victorian Australian of the Year, Uncle Jack Charles. They both made me question the breadth of my life experience and whether I was qualified to speak about issues I haven’t got as lived an experience of when compared to others.

The book nor the movie are tidal waves of pessimism and human misery. Jack himself is quite the character as well as a trailblazer having starred in movies and TV shows that range from 2015’s ‘Pan’ to ‘The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’. He also was instrumental in founding Indigenous theater in Australia with the founding of Nindethana at the Pram Factory in Melbourne. My personal highlight of going through both of them was an anecdote in the book about the time when he went out onto the stage stark bollock naked as a protest against the pay and conditions of six of the Aboriginal actresses performing alongside him in a play about the Australian colonial Governor, Arthur Phillip, and the indigenous intermediary, Bennelong, at the Tote Theatre in Sydney. Just hearing him speak, you can tell that he still possesses a genuine warmth and kindness which is evident in his smile. By the end of both the book and the last few scenes of the movie, it is palpable that he has got himself back on his feet and the energy he gives off exudes that. He is someone who knows who he is and is proud of it.

I would strongly recommend reading the book first, and then watching the movie. The book itself provides details that the movie doesn’t give due to time limits and the nature of film as a medium. On the other hand, Bastardy provides a visual account of Jack’s lived experience of being homeless, a cat burglar and of being addicted to heroin. While not a criticism of the book, the style that he and his ghost writer, Namilla Benson, utilize is usually pretty concise. The visuals, scenery and depiction of his life’s nadir and his first steps to eventual redemption was better encapsulated in the film.

He mentions in the movie’s very first scene that if Bastardy were to be reflective of his current mode of existence, it couldn’t shy away from parts of it that were discomfiting. This is encapsulated in one of Bastardy’s opening scenes, which shows Jack setting up camp in the laundry room of a block of flats and taking a hit of heroin. It definitely got my attention. Some might call me precious or privileged for writing this, but I won’t pretend to know how I would cope with being forced to sleep on a concrete floor in a room where I would be exposed to physical harm or arrest. What was more confronting for me was the image of Jack injecting himself. I had never seen an actual person doing hard drugs in real life until that moment, and that scene challenged my internal narratives about how worldly I am.

Bastardy unavoidably leaves some gaps in Jack’s life story. This is where Jack Charles: Born Again Blakfella complements it so well. Where Bastardy portrays the era when he was living on the streets and reveals some of the achievements and setbacks he had experienced up to then, Born Again Blakfella starts from the point of him being taken from his mother, Blanchie, soon after he was born. Whereas Bastardy covers some of the trauma that he experienced growing up in a fragmentary manner, Born Again Blakfella goes into more detail about Jack’s upbringing as the sole indigenous boy in the state institution he lived in, being sexually abused, being arrested for daring to find out about his birth mother and then subsequently meeting her, his ostracism from his own people over a past conflict involving his mum that was settled under traditional law, never getting to meet six of his living siblings, the racism that he confronted in his past as well as the prejudice he encounters in his present, as well as his battle with alcohol and drugs. To someone watching the film, this extra detail provides the necessary context to the movie.

On a personal level, the book also was simultaneously a personal nostalgia trip and a wake up call. Having spent a fair amount of time in the suburbs that he references in the book such as Carlton, Box Hill, Hawthorn and Blackburn, my familiarity with them gave me a good reference point when picturing the scenarios that he described. It also made me think about how cognizant I really was of what was actually going on behind closed doors and down back alleys in some of those neighborhoods. While Melbourne is a beautiful city in parts with a vibrant cultural life, you are always aware that there is a schism that exists. When locals think of Melbourne, there is a tendency to think of the leafy mansions of Kew (which Jack burgled), the trendy cafes of Brunswick, the restaurant strip in Carlton, the bayside suburbs of Elwood and Brighton, and the chic shopping boutiques of Prarhan. However, even when passing through most of these suburbs, you will run into people who have been left behind and discarded. Everyone has a story to tell, and too often Melburnians tend to be too self obsessed to actually give a shit about them. Indeed, I may very well have walked past Jack himself when he was sleeping rough as I walked down Swanston or Collins Street in the heart of the Melbourne CBD. I probably wouldn’t have known any different at the time.

A 256 page read, Jack Charles: Born Again Blakfella is something you can get through in one sitting if you are committed. Jack by his own admission has his flaws yet he never once comes across as self pitying or contemptible. For this reason, as well as the tale of redemption involved, I would highly recommend both it and Bastardy for your quarantine reading and movie lists respectively.

Further references:

ABC Conversations interview with Jack Charles August 21st 2019

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