Jedda (1955)

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Plot summary: Jedda is an Aboriginal girl born on a cattle station in the Northern Territory of Australia. She has been raised by Sarah McMann, the wife of the station boss, Doug. Sarah raises Jedda as her own, teaching her European ways and separating her from other Aboriginal people. A young “half-caste” stockman named Joe is in love with Jedda and wishes to marry her, but Jedda is struggling with her own attraction to an Aboriginal man named Marbuk.

Trigger/content warnings: This blog entry contains discussions of death, racism (including slurs and blackface), misogyny, the sexualisation of children and sexual assault. Indigenous readers are also advised that this entry contains names and images of Aboriginal people who have died.

In this entry, I discuss how the Australian film Jedda represents the teenage title character’s race, gender and sexuality as inextricable from one another, and the possibility of representation being exploitative.

Sixteen-year-old Jedda (Rosalie Kunoth, billed as Ngarla Kunoth) is the adoptive Aboriginal daughter of a rural White couple, the McManns. Sarah McMann (Betty Suttor) is determined to “make something” of Jedda by assimilating her into White society, whereas Doug (George Simpson-Lyttle) believes that Jedda’s “tribal instincts” will eventually win out over her European upbringing. Joe (Paul Reynall), a young “half-caste” man who has also been raised by the McManns, is in love with Jedda and wishes to marry her, but Jedda is hesitant to settle down with him. When a mysterious Aboriginal man named Marbuk (Robert Tudawali) comes to work on the McManns’ station, Jedda is powerfully drawn to him. When Marbuk kidnaps Jedda and takes her with him into the bush, Joe must head after them to try and recover Jedda.

I first saw Jedda when I was twenty years old, as part of a university class on Aboriginality in Australian Film and Television. The reading we were given for that week, “Chauvel and the Centring of the Aboriginal Male in Australian film” by Colin Johnson (later known as Mudrooroo) posited that most of the characters in the film were fairly flat and stereotypical, aside from Marbuk. From the perspective of someone who had recently been a girl (and was often still regarded as a “twenty-year-old girl” by others), Jedda’s perspective on the crappy situation she had found herself in interested me a lot more than any of the other characters. While Robert Tudawali’s Marbuk undoubtedly stands out in the history of the representation of men of colour (especially Indigenous Australian men) in Western film, I resented the McManns, Joe and Marbuk for all, in my eyes, merely projecting their own desires and views onto Jedda, without ever taking into account what she wanted. The film provides a window into White Australians’ viewpoints of teenage Aboriginal girls in the 1950s, specifically the ways in which Jedda’s race, gender and sexuality are viewed as inextricable from one another.

It’s important for me to acknowledge right out of the gate that while I sympathised with Jedda’s experience on the grounds of being the same gender and a similar age to the character, my point of view doesn’t represent the default or correct reading. In an Australian Screen Classics book on the film, Jane Mills writes:

My students were divided like most Australians are when they first see Jedda. But they taught me a valuable lesson. After hearing my post-colonial critique and semi-apology for screening the film, an Indigenous student gently told me that his Aunty thought Marbuk was a bit of a spunk. This was when I realised that there was much more to the film than I had credited it with. I also realised that my students, their relatives and I all owned a different Jedda (2012, 25)

Thus, this blog entry will largely be about my take on Jedda, which may or may not dovetail with others’ impressions on the film.

The film opens with Sarah McMann mourning the loss of her first child, asking via a two-way radio to be posted a certificate so she can bury the baby. Elsewhere on the isolated station, an Aboriginal man, Booloo (an uncredited actor), has just seen his wife die in childbirth with their daughter (referred to as “it” or, in one instance, “this little thing”). The White drover, Felix Romeo (Wason Byers), expresses the tiniest possible amount of sympathy, saying that Booloo, “was very fond of that little woman of his.” That Jedda might be cared for by her biological father Booloo or by another relative (such as an aunt or grandmother) is not raised as a possibility. It is decided that they will approach Sarah to see if she can organise for an Aboriginal woman on her station to raise the baby, and that Booloo will be informed of this decision. Booloo, seen in the next scene preparing to hand newborn Jedda over to Sarah, appears entirely willing to give up his daughter, and is not shown grieving for his dead wife. The Aboriginal women at Mongala Station, however, are all wailing inconsolably about the loss of Sarah’s baby. While the death of a child is undoubtedly tragic, that Jedda’s birth mother is not mourned in the slightest is disturbing to a modern viewer. I realise that I’m making these observations about a film that was made in the 1950s, when attitudes were very different to now, but many of these attitudes – that Indigenous people’s lives are less valuable, and that men of colour are uninterested in or incapable of caring for children – persist into the present day, so it’s crucial that we problematise them wherever we see them.

When Sarah lays eyes on baby Jedda, she reacts with anger that this child survived while her own perished. “It would live,” she says with quiet resentment. She screams at one of the Aboriginal house girls to, “Take it away!” Doug, establishing a precedent for the kind of extreme uselessness he will exhibit throughout the film, essentially arrives fifteen minutes late with Starbucks to his wife’s grieving process. He tells her that they can always have another child and suggests that she take a trip to Darwin. Sarah is not particularly comforted by this. Indicating baby Jedda, Sarah proclaims, “This one survives. Its mother died on the track in childbirth, but it survives. They always do.” Aside from the deeply annoying continued use of “it” to denote Jedda, this seems to directly contradict an earlier statement she made that the local Aboriginal people “haven’t enough [children] for the future.” Your racism is getting very muddled here, Sarah – it seems like the Aboriginal people are either thriving or declining depending on what will suit her mood at any particular moment.

The voice-over tells us, “Jedda’s few days at the homestead lengthened into weeks, and then months. Somehow, Sarah McMann never seemed to find that suitable foster mother among the tribe. She would have laughed if anyone had suggested that she was growing fond of baby Jedda, but somehow, Jedda remained.” Thus, Jedda “is assigned the task of making good the mother’s pain, of taking the place of the dead white child” (Creed 2007, 65).

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Little Jedda (Margaret Dingle)

The portrayal of Jedda’s childhood suggests that her dormant sexuality is intrinsic and uncontrollable. Nudity is a recurring motif, playing into the idea that children of colour (particularly Indigenous, Black and Latinx children) aren’t as innocent as White children, that they are more knowing and have a more powerful sexuality by virtue of their race. The first scene showing Sarah McMann relating to Jedda (played as a five-year-old by Margaret Dingle) as a mother figure depicts her bathing her adoptive daughter. This scene is heartwarming, but unsettling. Why, of all the bonding activities between a mother and child, did the screenwriters choose to show Jedda being vigorously scrubbed all over by Sarah? Why couldn’t they have been gardening, or baking, or playing dolls or reading a story book or doing literally anything other than trying to make little Jedda less “dirty?”

The scene is reminiscent of one in the 2002 film Rabbit-Proof Fence, where the fourteen-year-old Indigenous protagonist Molly (Everlyn Sampi) is washed by a nun during her incarceration at the Moore River Native Settlement. The nun, Miss Jessop, tells Molly, “We’ve got to scrub you” and commands Molly to repeat after her, “Yes, Miss Jessop. Thank you, Miss Jessop. That is much better.” In the Rabbit-Proof Fence scene, the objectifying and patronising nature of viewing dark-skinned people as necessarily physically dirty is at the forefront of the dialogue. The child actor, Everlyn Sampi, is also photographed from the shoulders up. However, in the Jedda scene, Margaret Dingle is shown completely naked. In another scene, little Jedda pulls a sundress straight over her naked body. Surely if a film, especially of that time, had shown a White child dressing, they would, at least, have worn underwear? In a scene where Sarah calls Jedda away from the Aboriginal children living on the station, she laments that she “can’t keep her clean” if she continues to play with them. In all of these instances, “cleanliness and propriety stand for whiteness, while dirt and disruption stand for Aboriginality” (Mills 31).

Gradually, Sarah becomes fond of Jedda. She cuddles her, calls her “darling” – and asks, “Did you see Boss coming home?” By this, Sarah means her husband Doug McMann. This indicates that despite living with the McManns from infancy, Doug does not relate to Jedda as a parent. Upon Doug’s arrival, he does not greet Jedda, talking about her as if she is absent. “Still trying to turn that wild little magpie into a tame canary?” he asks Sarah. By constantly calling Jedda “wild” by virtue of her race, the film articulates “a widely-held racist belief that the non-white races were interstitial, that is, easily able to bridge the gap between species, in this case between human and non-human, human and animal” (Creed 2007, 65). When the McManns discuss the issue of assimilation, Doug says, “You won’t wipe out the tribal instincts and desires of a thousand years in one small life.” Sarah replies, “It’s my duty to try.” Mills writes that in this scene “By not offering an Indigenous viewpoint, [the film] encourages us to take one side or the other. But both views are underpinned by Social Darwinist ideas that Indigenous people are a dying race and much lower on the scale of humanity than white people” (2012, 33-34).

There’s a particularly discomfiting, some might say creepy part in this discussion in which Doug suggests that Jedda, only five years old, be allowed to go on walkabout with the local Aboriginal people, before salaciously implying that the sole reason for these walkabouts is to engage in orgies in the desert. Doug seems not to think that an Aboriginal child could be traumatised by such things, adding, “Plenty of kids her age go.” There is an unsettling unpleasantness under his words, particularly when Joe, the McManns’ other ward (played as a ten-year-old by Willie Farrar), professes affection for Jedda. Doug says, “The Jezebel! … Not satisfied with claiming my wife, she claims my [future] head stockman too!” This is a bizarre way to talk about someone who was recently a toddler. These words would better describe some adult woman who has seduced her way into his home, not a child whose sunny personality causes the people around her to care for her. There seems to be a hefty dose of preferential treatment going on here, as Mills also observes that “Doug has no plans to send Joe on a walkabout” (2012, 37).

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Sarah and Jedda (Rosalie Kunoth)

A timeskip shows us Jedda at sixteen. She has blossomed into a young beauty, and is an accomplished pianist and horse rider. She is curious about her heritage, which the film equates with an adolescent interest in sex. When Jedda asks to go on walkabout, Sarah asks what Jedda would do, “with all those naked monkeys?” Giggling, Jedda replies, “Do what all the other monkeys do!” Hoping to distract her, Sarah tells Jedda to practice piano. As she gazes at some Aboriginal artifacts decorating the living room, Jedda’s piano playing becomes more frenzied, intermingling with the sounds of chanting and clap-sticks, before coming to an almost orgasmic conclusion. She clutches her heads and moans in distress. Clearly, she is a ticking time bomb of repressed sexuality. However, the McManns are not overly concerned, since they expect that Jedda will soon be Joe’s wife, living “in a neat little shack with frilly curtains.”

God, I hate Joe. When I was twenty, my first girlfriend and I used to spend much of our time mocking the terrible blackface makeup on Joe, as well as his incredibly prissy accent (we had a running joke of referring to him as “Joooooe, who is a jeeeeeerk”) and his creepy desire to marry a sixteen-year-old girl he’s known since she was born. To a modern audience, the McMann family reads as a worryingly fractured one. Mills observes, “Both Sarah and Doug, it seems, are capable of loving an Aboriginal person but not the same one. Why can’t they both love Jedda and Joe?” (2012, 36). Joe states that his father was Afghani, but given that Joe has a European name, a warm relationship with Doug McMann and is head stockman, Mudrooroo has posited that Doug may be Joe’s biological father (1987, p.50). This would certainly place the preferential treatment Joe gets in a whole new light, as well as the fact that Sarah doesn’t appear to be very close to him.

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Studies have shown that patronising arseholery is genetic, so make of that what you will.

The McManns both think that Joe and Jedda getting married is a fantastic idea. With his stupid posh accent and inclination toward love and matrimony, Joe can keep Jedda on the straight and narrow by preventing her from “mat[ing] with one of the tribe,” yet his Aboriginal heritage means that theirs is not a scandalous “mixed” union.

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Jedda neatly dodges Joe’s marriage proposal. Good one, Jedda.

Shockingly, Jedda is not entirely on board with this plan. Joe proposes marriage, Jedda hardly reacts, instead asking whether their house will have a roof. She becomes considerably more overwrought by the thought of being unable to see the stars than she does over Joe’s proposal. This is used to suggest that the prospect of being Joe’s wife means very little to Jedda, because Aboriginal people apparently detest monogamy and family and all that. Since it’s the 1950s and the McManns seem determined to view her as a sexual force of nature, at no point does anyone consider that perhaps she doesn’t want to marry him because she’s sixteen years old and he’s essentially her older brother.

Jedda’s immersion in her culture is shown to be directly concurrent to her sexual awakening. It begins with Marbuk’s arrival. Marbuk, a tribal Aboriginal man in a brief loincloth, is a heartthrob for the Aboriginal women living at the station, who stare openly at his physique as he walks by. Jedda’s European upbringing means that she alone tries to control herself. Even his name announces him as a sex symbol, with its “buck” suffix evoking the stereotypical “Black Buck” character archetype popularised by D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. According to Donald Bogle, the Black Buck type could be sub-categorised as either the Black Brute and the Black Buck: “The Black brute was a barbaric black out to raise havoc. Audiences could assume that his physical violence served as an outlet for a man who was sexually repressed” (1993, 13). By comparison, the pure Black Bucks are “oversexed and savage, violent and frenzied” (Bogle 1993, 14).

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Marbuk (Robert Tudawali)

Jedda’s newfound feelings widen the gulf between her and the Aboriginal girls who live on the station, who fall silent when Jedda appears, resuming their conversation when Jedda is out of earshot. This scene makes me feel for Jedda. She moves through the Aboriginal women partly as if she is Sarah, chiding them for gossiping, and partly as a child who longs to be included in the big girls’ secrets. Either way, she’s an outsider.

After bribing a girl named Nita with a trinket, Nita whispers to Jedda how a man might sing a girl to his campfire “even against her will.” This is implicative of one girl telling another how babies are made – or, in the context of the film, how Aboriginal babies are made. Joe’s voiceover describes Jedda’s confusion: “The throb of the didgeridoo – what did it mean? Something Jedda longed for, but couldn’t … understand.”

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Dressed in frilled pyjamas, Jedda listens to the sounds of a corroboree just outside her bedroom.

Jedda is bewitched by Marbuk’s song. She dances spasmodically, clutches her head, cries out and falls down in the grass. Upon waking, she goes to Marbuk, blouse unbuttoned and feet bare, seemingly unsure of what will happen but unable to deny herself any longer. Marbuk abducts her, lighting trees on fire to cause a diversion. When Joe declares his intention to go after Jedda and rescue her from Marbuk, Doug is considerably “more worried about his horses and about Joe’s safety than he is about Jedda, his wife’s adopted daughter who has lived with him in his homestead since she was a tiny baby” (Mills 2012, 43-44). Thank God Doug doesn’t show up again, because the fact that the film never seems to consider Doug a heinous person makes me grind my teeth.

Jedda, who has been so curious about Aboriginality (and therefore, necessarily, about sex, the film suggests), is subjected to barbaric treatment from Marbuk. Marbuk barks at her in language (despite having been shown to speak English). He makes her eat snakes, which Jedda finds disgusting, and drives her along relentlessly. Finally, there comes a suggestive scene where Jedda eats some fish and passes out, either from exhaustion or because the fish was drugged. Once Jedda is unconscious, the soundtrack swells ominously and Marbuk moves menacingly towards her. The implication that he rapes her is supported by the fact that after this scene, Marbuk seems to abandon all pretence of caring. Marbuk seizes Jedda by her hair. The longer she is with him, the more tattered her clothes become, until they are almost indecently ripped. She cries constantly.

Jedda’s journey into Aboriginal culture and her fall from grace culminate with Marbuk’s exile from his people as they sing his death song. He has angered them by “taking a girl of the wrong skin.” Jedda begs Marbuk not to die, as he is her only protector now. Deranged, he takes her plea as a suggestion to kill her so that he can live. Shortly thereafter, Marbuk and Jedda plummet from a cliff as Joe watches helplessly. Mudrooroo says “In an Aboriginal reading, as both male and female have broken the law, both deserve to die, and do” (55). A contemporary Western reading suggests that Jedda’s spectacular demise is a “character punishment death” of the sort often suffered by characters whose sexual behaviour is outside the norm, such as Jill Banford in The Fox (1967), a lesbian who is ultimately killed by a falling tree. Jedda’s fall from innocence is directly linked to both her budding sexuality and her immersion in her original culture, fulfilling the promise of the film’s tagline: “Jedda – a story of Eve in Ebony!”

“Was it our right to expect that Jedda, one of a race so mystic and so removed should be one of us in one short lifetime?” Joe asks us in voice-over, positioning himself as “one of us” (the presumably White audience). The film therefore argues that Jedda’s downfall came about as part of the misguided project to assimilate an Aboriginal child, necessarily primitive and wild and precociously sexual, into the superior White race. While, as a White lesbian writing from a feminist perspective in the present day, my reading of Jedda may differ from others’ views of the film, I would argue that even without the racism she was almost certain to encounter as an Aboriginal person, Jedda was served a heaping helping of awful circumstances. Jedda’s biological mother died, her biological father disappeared from her life, her adoptive mother isolated her and her adoptive father didn’t care about her at all. She wasn’t allowed to have any friends and, to cap it all, her adoptive parents expected her to marry her foster brother at the age of sixteen. Frankly, I’m shocked that she didn’t run off with a beautiful, mysterious, ripped stranger sooner. That the ripped stranger turned out to be abusive is not Jedda’s fault.

Jedda portrays Aboriginal female sexuality as being innate, uncontrollable and ultimately dangerous. Jedda is shown to have a powerful urge to be naked and free from her earliest years. She is too deeply rooted in her heritage and sexuality for her relationship with straight-laced Joe to blossom. Finally, Jedda pays the ultimate price as her discovery of her birth culture leads to her ruin. The film frustrates me so much because Joe, Doug and Sarah are all implied to be, in their respective ways, in the right. As Creed says, “Jedda’s ‘captivity’ – for that is what it is – is represented in the main not as captivity, but as a tale of Jedda’s good fortune” (2007, 64). It’s perfectly reasonable for Sarah to require Jedda to fill the gap left by her dead White child, and not see Jedda for the person that she is. It’s absolutely expected that Joe should view Jedda only as a potential wife. It’s totally fine that Doug doesn’t seem to give a single shit about Jedda, just because she’s Aboriginal and female and not biologically related to him. All of these people claim to be looking out for Jedda, when all they’re doing is looking out for themselves.

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You’re all fully the friggin’ worst.

As readers of this blog might have guessed, I’m not much of a fan of films in which heterosexual romance is the be-all and end-all of a girl’s life (I especially despise films which act like screwing a professor in his forties is the single most exciting thing any teenage girl could do). However, I could waive that preference for a film in which two people of colour find joy and strength in each other. As Creed points out, “Marbuk could have been depicted as a freedom fighter, a political outlaw who returns Jedda to her people” (2007, 69). Instead, the only possible role for an Aboriginal man without any apparent White heritage is as a life support system for an untamed sexuality.

Jedda is certainly a landmark film in terms of Indigenous Australian representation and Australian cinema. It’s the first film to feature Indigenous Australian actors in leading roles, even billing Rosalie Kunoth and Robert Tudawali above their White castmates. However, it’s imperative to weigh the importance of media representation against the wellbeing of the people in front of the camera. In her 2002 book No Logo, Naomi Klein argues that third-wave feminism’s emphasis of the importance of media representation constitutes a “Representation Nation,” where media visibility takes precedence over all other kinds of social and economic advancement for marginalised groups.

For me, part of the Representation Nation that we should consider is whether the drive for representation can be exploitative of the group it purports to champion. One example would be the 2014 FCKH8 advertisement “F-Bombs for Feminism: Potty-Mouthed Princesses Use Bad Word for Good Cause.” In this video, prepubescent girls in princess costumes use the word “fuck” with aplomb as they rail against the structural inequalities girls and women face, even asking which one of them will be raped within their lifetime. While I think that it is beneficial for prepubescent children to be educated about the existence of sexual violence and to enter puberty already well aware that rape is never the fault of the victim, I agree with Elline Lipkin’s take on the video’s script:

This isn’t how most girls under 10 would speak and the girls used, albeit likely paid models or actresses taking on a role, are props.  While many commenters reported that their (usually teenage) daughters expressed delight at seeing girls let loose with things they cannot say — again a moment that reveals how girls are stifled — there is hardly any empowerment when the girls didn’t write these scripts themselves and are, fundamentally, co-opted into a purportedly radical company’s for-profit campaign through their “walking billboards” which work to questionable effect.

While the video brought other girls a vicarious thrill at imagining themselves being allowed to swear unfettered, it is nonetheless potentially exploitative. Similarly, despite my delight at getting to watch a 1950s film with a girl lead character in my film class as a twenty-year-old, the slightest bit of research into the making of the film will reveal that starring in Jedda was not a particularly empowering experience for the sixteen-year-old lead actress, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks (nee Kunoth).

Born at Utopia Cattle Station in Australia’s Northern Territory to parents of the Alywarr and Amnatyerr language groups, Rosalie Kunoth was cast in Jedda despite having little understanding of what acting was and no desire to be a film star. She was billed as Ngarla Kunoth, since Elsa Chauvel (co-writer of the film’s screenplay and wife of the director, Charles Chauvel) felt that “Rosie” or “Rosalie” were not sufficiently exotic names. Interviewed in later life, Kunoth-Monks

recalled her dislike of being taken away from her place and people to unfamiliar country and to a ‘situation where you didn’t have any control whatsoever’, and her ‘most prominent feeling’ during filming was ‘homesickness’. She was not informed that she was to play Jedda in the film, but was simply given instructions to care for her appearance. During the first three months, she did not know what the cameras were doing, thinking Charles Chauvel and the cameraman were ‘a temperamental lot’ because they complained that ‘the sun wasn’t shining in the right place, or that someone was casting a shadow’ (in Fox 2009, 82).

She was smacked by Elsa Chauvel “for sucking my thumb and for being shy” (in Fox 2009, 82). Furthermore, her cultural background and specific needs as an Indigenous person were disregarded during filming. Interviewed for ABC’s Message Stick as an adult, Kunoth-Monks explained the directors of the film “slowly broke my law to make me act” by requiring her to raise her head and look Robert Tudawali in the face, which was prohibited by her “grandmother’s law” (Fox 2009, 86).

At the film’s premiere, Kunoth was unimpressed with the finished product. Since the film had been shot out of sequence, she had been unaware of her character’s motivations and thus found Jedda to be an irritatingly passive character with little instinct for self-preservation. I agree with Mills, who comments on the sexualisation of the teenage Kunoth within the film: “I cannot help but stand back from the narrative and think that the teenage Rosalie could have had no idea how the camera would emphasise her voluptuous breasts under a wet, and torn and clinging blouse, her bare shoulders, her badly ripped skirt” (2012, 50). Finally, Kunoth was horrified by a scene in the film in which Marbuk seizes Jedda’s ankle. In her culture, such a gesture was an inappropriately intimate one between unrelated people of different genders, and Kunoth was immediately worried that her mother and extended tribal family would think that something untoward had occurred between her and Tudawali.

Hence, in the case of both Jedda and the FCKH8 advertisement, we can see that representation in and of itself is neither positive nor negative – it simply is, and without taking into account the needs of the specific populations being represented, it can quickly become exploitative.

Happily, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks has been active in Aboriginal affairs for decades. According to Wikipedia:

Rosalie Kunoth spent ten years from 1960 as a nun in the Melbourne Anglican Community of the Holy Name. She then left the order, married [Bill Monks] and started work with the department of Aboriginal Affairs, setting up the first home in Victoria for Aboriginal children. Returning to the Alice Springs region, she worked for Aboriginal Hostels, the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. The then Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Paul Everingham, appointed her an adviser on Aboriginal affairs. Kunoth stood for election to the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly in 1979. She campaigned to oppose the proposed construction of a dam that threatened to destroy land sacred to her people. She lost that election but went on to continuing activism working to improve the lives of indigenous people. Presently she is Chancellor of the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education. […] In November 2014, Kunoth-Monks was a significant influence in bringing together with Tauto Sansbury a national gathering of Indigenous leaders to unite in the “fight” for their lands – the “Freedom Movement” – in Alice Springs.

She was also NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee) Person of the Year in 2015.

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Rosalie Kunoth-Monks at a 2015 screening of Jedda, holding a gift from a patron, Marjorie Harris, who was present at the 1955 premiere. Picture by Nicholas Goldhurst.

Tracey Moffatt’s excellent short film Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy, about a middle-aged Aboriginal woman caring for her elderly White adoptive mother, is a haunting look at what might have happened to Jedda had she survived the fall from the cliff. I wish that Jedda could be remade as a period film about a shy, clever Aboriginal teenager finding herself after having been raised in a rural White family in the 1950s. The remake could even retain the original title, as in Nate Parker’s upcoming film The Birth of a Nation, a biopic of the rebel slave Nat Turner, which repurposes the title of D.W. Griffith’s ground-breaking but incredibly racist film.

In the meantime, for a period film about a young girl of colour growing up in a white family, I would recommend Amma Asante’s Belle, based on the life of Dido Lindsay, a biracial aristocrat in Georgian England. Unlike Jedda, Belle had women of colour behind the camera as well as in front of it, and it definitely shows. For films about Indigenous Australian girls which privilege their perspectives, struggles and triumphs, see Rabbit-Proof Fence, Beneath Clouds and The Fringe Dwellers.

Jedda is a rare cinematic treatment of what it could be to be young, female, Aboriginal and adopted in a bygone time. It feels foolish to want so much more from it – to want Jedda to abandon her deeply dysfunctional adoptive parents and the various skeevy men in her life and go somewhere where people will appreciate her, or, at the very least, for the film to acknowledge that the way Jedda is treated is wrong, even if it wasn’t intended to be hurtful. But I think Jedda is an important film because it shows not only that we’ve come a long way as a society, but also, more pressingly, that we really haven’t come that far at all. In Australia, Aboriginal children are taken into care at rates far exceeding any other race, and the rape, murder and disenfranchisement of Indigenous people is still rampant. There’s a dangerous tendency to imagine that the present always represents the pinnacle of human enlightenment and achievement. Clearly, the Chauvels and other people who made Jedda were under that impression in the 1950s. Not only were the Chauvels wrong, but we also are in the modern day, and will continue to be for as long as these racist attitudes toward people (especially girls and women) of colour are allowed to linger unchecked and unquestioned.

See Also:


  • Bogle, Donald. 1993. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. New York: Continuum.
  • Creed, Barbara. 2007. “Jedda.” The Cinema of Australia and New Zealand. London: Wallflower Press, 63-72.
  • Fox, Karen. “Rosalie Kunoth-Monks and the Making of “Jedda”” Aboriginal History 33 (2009): 77-95.
  • Johnson, Colin / Mudrooroo. 1988. Chauvel and the Centring of the Aboriginal Male in Australian Film. Continuum 1(1): 47-56.
  • Klein, Naomi. 2002. No Logo: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs. New York: Picador.
  • Lipkin, Elline. 2014. The Case of the Cursing Princess.
  • Mills, Jane. 2012. Jedda. Strawberry Hills: Currency Press.



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