The stories of the oppressed have been used in so many films as little more than a tool to drive the plot. It’s obvious when this happens that the person behind the camera, writing the script, and even the people saying the lines are too far removed from the culture for the film to really have an impact. As a result, Sweet Country is as engaging as the old war movies my history teacher used to show when she wanted to get a break from the job.
This Australian western, directed by Warwick Thornton, captures so much of the unspoken nuances of the country’s oppressed dark-skinned people that it resonated with me, an American Black woman. The indigenous director Thornton and cast members expertly bring the international language of Black pain under white oppression to the screen. Sweet Country thus becomes a film that depicts the complexities of one people living, working, obeying, and caring for another people, despite the rape, abuse, and systems of control that hold up that relationship.
Thornton’s film is a social paradox itself. It’s about about a Black man named Sam (played by indigenous actor Hamilton Morris) murdering a white man (Harry March, played by veteran actor Ewen Leslie) circa 1920 in the Australian outback. Based on a true story, the film follows Sam as he becomes the first the Black man to stand trial for self-defense in the murder of a white man. The trial doesn’t change the fact that he is socially condemned for death the moment he pulls the trigger to protect his family.
Sweet Country opens with the sounds of violence, racist language, and begging, all while someone calmly stirs a campfire-style coffee with sugar. The audience never sees the fighting, we don’t need to. The pounding of flesh and sounds of human anguish mixed with rage are unmistakable. It ends up being a prologue of sorts, a scuffle between a white man and a Black farm hand that becomes relevant later in the film.
The opening leads into 30 crucial minutes, but it was also all I could stand at that moment—I had to stop the screening and walk away. My anger was so palpable that I could no longer sit and watch the way the white men treated the indigenous workers.
The scenes portraying the crime for which Sam is charged hold some very visceral material. There is the rape of an innocent Black maid named Lizzie (played by Natassia Gorey-Furber) occurs while her unknowing husband Sam was strategically sent to move cattle. There is the beating of a Black boy Philomac (the role was actually played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan) over a stolen watermelon. There is even a drunken war veteran, Harry March, who takes his turmoil out on small animals and anyone with Black skin. When that same man shackles Philomac with the same metal bonds that were used on my ancestors about six generation ago, my heart caught. Not at the shackles alone but at the look in the indigenous actor’s eyes; they held the fear of his punishment long with a pathetic desperation as he begged his way out of being chained to a rock in the harsh weather. The shooting and death of the man in the scenes that followed was more than enough for me to need a break.
The way that the indigenous characters relate to the white men who “owned” them required tremendous subtlety and nuance from these actorss. It’s in Sam’s downturned head as he is bitterly berated by Harry and the knowing gaze Lizzie gives her niece as she forces the young girl out of the house just in time for March to come in with his devious intentions. It’s the stoic gaze as Lizzie and Sam sit in the town square ready to be killed for their crime no matter what the laws says. I learned that all of them are first-time actors who live in the outback. They pull more emotion from the roles than Jamie Fox ever could as an abused slave in Django.
Upon returning to the screening, I was pleased to find that Thornton was not about to beat the audience down with the grueling “day in the life of an indigenous farmhand” material. Instead, Sam and Lizzie escape and, in the process, treat the audience to the most spectacular views of the Australian outback. The natural rock formations, the wildlife, the forests, and even the dried white sand of the evaporated lake were a breathtaking respite from the story, despite the fact that the story was taking place within these settings. Thornton seems to work his movie around the setting as if it were another character in the film. Bryan Brown, who played the sergeant hunting for Sam and Lizzie, dragged his filthy bronze body in a dehydrated crawl through the whitest evaporated landscape I’ve ever scene. The color contrast alone in this scene is magnificent. The chase is punctuated by Sam explaining the relations between white men and Black men to Philomac, and Lizzie has a surprising revelation of her own. These conversations were like the soundtrack over the shifting outback scenes.
The first 30 minutes of oppression and murder, and the 90 minutes of chase across the grandest of scenery, culminate in a trial that was doomed from the moment it started. These parts are inundated with flashbacks that sometimes get in the way of the storytelling. A few are a little difficult to even understand until later scenes. The film also drags in a few places where the inexperienced actors are covering inorganic parts of the script—usually the dialogue between the white men and the indigenous men. However, taken all together, the film tells not only the story of an indigenous people, but also sets the atrocities against a beautiful country background. About halfway through the movie, the title Sweet Country begins to make sense.
The movie starts with some ugly material, but ends up introducing audiences to a beautiful place, making this tale of the white oppression of the Black body much more than a gratuitous demonstration. The story presents the paradox of oppression and its outcome, something every person in the audience with melanin and a connection with their heritage reluctantly expects.
Written by Jonita Davis
Jonita Davis loves, reads, studies, and writes about comics, books, TV, culture, and more. You can usually find her in a corner somewhere, dragging a pen across paper in an effort to make sense of the world.