Directed By: Fred Schepisi
Starring: Freddy Reynolds, Angela Punch McGregor, Tommy Lewis
Tag line: "The chant of the underdog"
Trivia: Prior to being cast as the film's title character, Tommy Lewis was a student with no acting experience
Based on the best-selling novel by Thomas Keneally (which in turn was inspired by actual events), Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a searing exposé of racism in turn-of-the-century Australia, relating the story of a man who’s pushed too far, and decides it’s high time that he start pushing back.
Set in the year 1900, just before the Federation of the Australian States, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith stars Tommie Lewis as the title character, a half-caste (part white, part aborigine) raised by Rev. Neville (Jack Thompson) and his wife Martha (Julie Dawson) to be an upstanding member of the community. Though he maintains a close relationship with his Aborigine family, including his uncle Tabidgi (Steve Dodds) and brother Mort (Freddy Reynolds), Jimmie works hard to impress the Nevilles, and even marries a white woman (played by Angela Punch McGregor), all in the hopes that he will one day be accepted into so-called “Normal” society. But after being cheated by each of his employers (who refused to pay him his full wages), Jimmie attacks the family of his latest boss, Jack Newby (Don Crosby), killing several in the process. Now on the run, Jimmie, joined by Tabidgi and Mort, manages to avoid capture for months, all the while continuing to strike back at those who’ve wronged him over the years.
Though he’d never appeared in a feature film prior to The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Tommie Lewis is wonderful in the lead role, playing Jimmie as a high-spirited young man intent on proving his worth, only to be beaten down at every turn. His first employer, Healey (Tim Robertson), hired Jimmie to build a fence, offering him a meager wage, then threatening to withhold a portion of it if the posts didn’t line up perfectly. Jimmie happily accepts, and initially, Healey tells him he’s doing a good job. That all changes, of course, when payday arrives, at which point Healey complains the fence isn’t up to snuff. Things aren’t much better for Jimmie when he joins the local police force (he has to sleep in the barn, and works without boots), and even the Rev. Neville and his wife, who raised Jimmie, have a tendency to look down on him. One evening, Mrs. Neville discusses Jimmie’s upcoming marriage to a white woman, saying, with a smile, that his children will only be 1/4 caste, and adding that, if the next generation marries correctly, it could eventually be as low as 1/8 caste. All this and more besides leads Jimmie to lash out violently, and while the scene in which he attacks the Newby family is difficult to watch, we understand why he’s doing so.
What’s interesting about The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, however, is that it doesn’t portray Jimmie as an innocent victim. On the contrary, his desire to be part of white society causes him to sometimes act as badly as those he's trying to impress. In one scene, he pays a visit to the Aborigine quarter and sleeps with a black prostitute, calling her his “black bitch” as the two of them have sex. Also, while working for the police, he takes an active role in investigating the murder of a white man, who was stabbed while visiting the Aborigine camp. Jimmie was actually a witness to this killing (a fact he hides form his Commander), and uses his knowledge of the event to track down the guilty party, an Aborigine named Harry Edwards (Jack Charles). During the questioning, Jimmie goes so far as to chase down several Aborigines and bash them in the back of the head with his baton. Later on, when Jimmie begins his murder spree, he kills women and children, angering his brother Mort (who, as a result, calls Jimmie a “Devil Child”). Having witnessed the injustice he was subjected to, we definitely sympathize with Jimmie Blacksmith, but we don’t always like him.
Crisply directed by Schepisi and featuring the gorgeous cinematography of Ian Baker, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a beautiful movie about an ugly moment in history, and while it’s in no way a crowd-pleaser, it’s a film I think everyone should see.