Running Time: 102 minutes
UK Certificate: 15
Country: Australia, United Kingdom
In late 1958, in the remote town of Ceduna in South Australia, a nine year old white girl was brutally raped and bludgeoned to death in a beach cave. Shortly thereafter, in the presence of six local police officers, a full confession was signed by Max Stuart, an itinerant, alcoholic half-caste Aborigine, and his conviction and subsequent hanging for the crime seemed inevitable. Craig Lahiff's 'Black and White' is a powerful dramatisation of Stuart's ensuing trial and numerous appeals, in a case which divided a nation, and exposed for the first time the rotten foundations on which Australia's most important institutions were built.
Assigned, along with his legal partner Helen Devaney (Kerry Fox), to defend Stuart (David Ngoombujarra), small-time Adelaide lawyer David O'Sullivan (Robert Carlyle) is convinced of his client's innocence, and accuses the Ceduna police of torture and coercion. Arguing the opposite case is the formidable South Australian Crown Prosecutor, Roderic Chamberlain (Charles Dance), but O'Sullivan soon learns that he is also pitted against the closed ranks of the constabulary, the judiciary, the State, and even the Catholic church, all as outraged that so much fuss should be made about the fate of a black man as they are desperate to stave off any undermining of their own authority. Under incredible pressure from the establishment, O'Sullivan refuses to back down from his career-ruining attempt to save Stuart from execution, receiving help from some unexpected quarters – a sympathetic priest (Colin Friels), a German academic (Petru Gheorgiu) and an ambitious young journalist by the name of Rupert Murdoch (Ben Mendelsohn).
Films based closely on real events often lack the sort of drama that fills a big screen, but 'Black and White', with its cross-country dashes and eleventh hour reprieves, has as much excitement and tension as any work of blockbuster fiction. The screenplay by renowned Australian playwright Louis Nowra finds just the right balance between scenes inside and outside the courtroom, and deftly juggles an unusually large number of characters – there are seventy speaking parts – without ever seeming cluttered.
To its infinite credit, 'Black and White' is in fact anything but. You will leave the cinema none the wiser as to whether Stuart was actually guilty or innocent of the crime. Both O'Sulivan's and Chamberlain's accounts of what happened are shown in equally vivid flashback, even though they are in direct contradiction, and even the final comments offered by the real Max Stuart himself, now an old man, are enigmatic and equivocal. The real point of the film, however, is not so much to show which side is right, but rather to expose the injustice of a system which continually put up barriers to prevent one side of the story being heard at all. As such, it is one of the finest, and indeed clearest, illustrations in celluloid of the insidious workings of what we now know as institutional racism – a difficult issue with relevance not just in Australian life in the 1950s, but here and now.
It's Got: Excellent performances, especially from Charles Dance as the snobbish, driven Chamberlain, and Ben Mendelsohn as a young Rupert Murdoch getting his first taste of demagoguery.
It Needs: A retrial.
Alternatives:Cry Freedom, The Tracker
A true story about prejudice and old boys' networks, as engaging as it is important.