Musings on “Cleverman” and the nature of stories about prejudice

My Netflix suggestions had been nagging me for several weeks, waving the thumbnail of this little-known show at me through my screen. I passed it over several times, not for any particularly strong reason, not feeling fully enticed by this shadowy, edgy glare from an unfamiliar actor.

It hadn’t ever come up on my radar elsewhere, but I was hungry for sci-fi and I started up the pilot, my thumb on the back button just in case. I’m not entirely sure what happened, but I finished the series in 2 days, emerging from the darkness of my room in a strange existential bliss, confused and blinded by the harsh light of the sun.

Cleverman tells a rare kind of story in an age of unfortunate narrative convergence. Topical summaries describe it as an “aboriginal fantasy” and a “futuristic drama with aboriginal roots” — combinations of words you’ve probably never encountered before. It weaves aboriginal Australian beliefs together with the common sci-fi/real-life premise of “strange versions of humans that must be subjugated” into a gripping, intriguing, and refreshing reworking of what could have easily been another tired-out trope — or an outright flop.

What happens in Cleverman is something that hasn’t been successfully done (to my knowledge) before, namely, the engagement between both a real-life, historically marginalized community (indigenous Australians) alongside a fictitious “other” — the “Hairypeople.”

The Hairypeople come from aboriginal mythology — known as “Yowies” to the cryptozoology fans out there — and they take on the role of the oppressed, living side-by-side with poor humans in the “Zone” — a slum/refugee camp for both groups. The spokesman and political advocate for the Hairy and non-Hairy poor is a black aboriginal man, who harbors bitterness for his half-white half-brother and must grapple with the white leaders in power in order to get what he needs for his people.

Basically, in this narrative, systemic human racism is far from over, and the characters fully acknowledge this, which both enriches and complicates the story of the Hairy’s oppression as well.

There’s an uncomfortable tendency in oppression storytelling for writers to speak to us in allegories: creating a new, fictitious group of creatures or circumstances that fully takes the place of the actual group of people they’re talking about. It’s almost suggesting that we couldn’t be bothered to care about the real people they’re referencing, and the only way to reach our hearts is through alien metaphors:

Gee, isn’t it great that racism is over in this magnificent world in the future? But-uh oh! Here come the space aliens! And we hate them.

Yes, I’m looking at you, District 9 . As much as I enjoyed that film, I was left with a heap of unsettling questions about the nature of telling stories like that, and why film studios and networks opt for fantasy rather than reality. Why can’t we, as audiences, be trusted to engage with real-life problems too? Do they think we can’t process those stories? Why do they think we can’t handle it?

The short answer: Reality is painful. The vast majority of people look to fiction to disconnect, not engage.

Using aliens as stand-ins for indigenous South Africans or giant blue cat people for Native Americans (or poor Earthlings for immigrants trying to enter the developed world) allows us to step back for a moment and, without the weight of our own politics and prejudices and guilt, enter a story that approximates our own world and feel sympathy for a fictional group of people whose troubles we need not worry about. They cease to exist once the movie or book or show is over, and we can feel satisfied with the ending, whether they got what they wanted or not. These stories can still make you think — and those three all did— but in a non-committal, “Can you imagine?” way.

This isn’t a bad thing — this is just what filmed storytelling, for the overwhelming part of its existence, has been crafted to do. Movies and television are an escape from the world, and sadness doesn’t sell.

But with the rise of personal TV-viewing, video streaming, and the extra thousand restricted channels that didn’t exist when I was a child, shows can now be delivered directly to the intended audience by algorithms or channel subscriptions. Watching TV is no longer an exclusively ‘round-the-living-room wholesome family activity, and individual viewers are free to explore the unusual, the serious, and the risk-taking works that networks are explicitly creating for them.

So now, at least TV writers have greater flexibility in exploring oppression, though movies are still bound to unfortunate demands for “feel-good” (read: profitable) oppression narratives. You’re either a courageous story about tragic yet visionary men, skirting around the more distressing aspects of prejudice, or you pick another genre entirely. You don’t get to dive into tragedy, magic, and history all at once.

What Cleverman demonstrates and what others have done so as well, is that there are startlingly fresh ways of presenting seemingly unprofitable subjects, thanks to changes in the nature of TV viewing. You’re allowed to blend genres and get into heavy topics — you can tell an “aboriginal fantasy” to this ignorant American who knew next to nothing about aboriginal Australia, but who was down for a new kind of sci-fi and ended up liking the show for its depth and ambition.

Cleverman embraces the narrative complexity of blending two types of oppression — one imagined, the other real — and gives us something tangible to engage with beyond the world of its story. It is propelled forward by distinct and striking characters, and its visuals are infused with a meaning and mood that carries through to its dramatic cliffhanger. If you haven’t seen it already, give it a chance, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.