Cleverman: an Indigenous TV superhero fighting racism and white supremacy
How should Australia try to understood its unsavoury history?
In the midst of the US controversy over HBO’s planned portrayal of race and slavery in Confederate, the responsibility of cultural media to challenge and reassess has become even more urgent.
Perhaps, producing TV dramas such as Cleverman is a step in the right direction.
I am not a fan of superhero movies. From what I’ve seen, most of the mainstream superhero genre is orientalist, racist, misogynist, and profoundly white (Dr Strange is an obvious example here, on a number of levels). It seems that a modern superhero is not required to fight the forces of state, systematic oppression — particularly if that is race-based oppression.
Instead, for the large part, action superheroes tend to be portrayed literally as white saviours against external (often racialised) malevolent forces. In the case of Suicide Squad, the external menace was literally a powerful dark spirit of pre-European America (which the US government were trying to violently control).
So the production of Cleverman by Sundance TV in Australia stands out in many distinct ways, particularly as its second season has just been released. Its possibility has perhaps been aided by the innovations of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage on Netflix, and also by Jane Campion’s surgical dissection of structural social misogyny in Top of the Lake.
But it also contains something far more than anything that has preceded it. It is literally a critique of normative white supremacism, dressed up as near-future science fiction. And in doing so, it is brutally honest.
For me, one of the greatest achievements of Cleverman is its majority Indigenous cast. The show has a creator (Ryan Griffin), directors (Wayne Blair and Leah Purcell), and a number of leading actors from Indigenous backgrounds. It is hard to believe that this has actually happened on a mainstream show on Australian TV.
Despite this, it is also slightly annoying that Iain Glen is presented as one of its main stars, since although his performance is good, he is not where the strength and distinctiveness of Cleverman lies.
But this itself reflects the world that Cleverman is portraying, in which the government, the securitised state, and media moguls call the shots.
Cleverman also breaks new ground through it putting Indigenous narratives at its centre. It explores those narratives whilst also exploring and highlighting systematic racism and the deadly power of dehumanising discourses. By focusing on superheroes and the struggles of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, the story shows without preaching.
The nation that is called Australia has a fairly long and difficult history to deal with. As a far outpost of the British empire, it developed into its contemporary form on the basis of two contradictory values.
That is, white Australians — like the British as a whole — saw themselves as a decent and civilising society, whilst at the same time structuring their lives and the wider wealth of their nation (and empire) on brutal and violent racism for the benefit of appropriating resources.
In the case of British settlement in north America, this theft of resources included not only materials and land, but also people — in the chattel slavery system that prevailed under the British for over two centuries. By the time the British came to settle on the large, inhabited land-mass they called ‘Terrus Australis’ (i.e., Australia) they had decided that enslavement was no longer morally or economically expedient. But the British sense of entitlement through conquest of land, food, water, and other resources still remained. In short, British soldiers and settlers decided that the lands of Australia were there for the taking. And so they took them.
The question of what to do with the people who were already there was left largely unresolved. British legal systems were put in place, including rights of ownership, with very little attempt to relate such laws to whatever was already in place before their arrival. It was a full-scale, near-total invasion.
The native people of the land mass were often called ‘Aboriginals’, but are now usually referred to as Indigenous people (not ‘Indigenous Australians’, since of course Australia is itself part of the terminology of the European settlers). The Indigenous people have been there for a very long time, around 50–60,000 years. In this respect, the presence of Europeans for just over 200 years is merely the blink of an eye.
However, a lot can happen in two centuries, and the ‘facts on the ground’ of colonial settlement have been created to a large extent at the expense of the many different Indigenous cultures and groups. To create contemporary multicultural Australian society, Indigenous people have been excluded, marginalised, massacred, imprisoned, and discriminated against in a systematic way. Such racism is not through individual weaknesses of individual Australians, it has been — and largely still is — part of the system.
Perhaps the most notorious of policies against Indigenous peoples was part of the ‘White Australia’ programme, which resulted in the ‘Stolen Generations’ of Indigenous children. Similar to the residential schools programme in British Canada, this involved the literal kidnap of Indigenous children from their homes, and their forced education in special schools to assimilate them by making them white.
This was in recent history, ending in the 1970s. It also shocking that also very recently, in 1967, a decision was made (through a referendum) to change the classification of Indigenous people, from previously ‘flora and fauna’. Literally to recognise the humanity of the people who had been dispossessed and excluded by British settlement and the creation of Australia.
There is a lot of history there to deal with, and there can be no denying that contemporary Australia is still trying to (or is in need of) addressing that recent past.
It may be too optimistic to think that a single TV drama can make a difference. The obvious example is Alex Hailey’s Roots, although even in that case, forty years on from the dramatisation of the US’ shameful history of slavery, it is still controversial to remind (white) Americans that black lives do actually matter. On a lesser scale, perhaps, the BBC drama Downton Abbey was part of the process of nostaligic reimagination of English history, that has led to the horrors of Brexit, the rise of xenophobia, and the idea of ‘Empire 2.0’.
By placing Cleverman in the superhero genre, the stakes are perhaps a little less high. Within the genre the success or otherwise of the superhero rest on their portrayal, backstory, and powers — not on the politics of their context.
The creation of an Indigenous superhero in Cleverman is a very powerful thing. As the series creator, Ryan Griffen has said:
I realised I wanted to create an Indigenous superhero that [my son] could connect to like he does any other superhero.
But as with Jessica Jones, the superhero-ness of the story is only part of a much larger picture. In the case of Jessica Jones, this was (white) male violence, control, and rape. In Cleverman, it is white Australia’s ongoing legacy with the Indigenous peoples.
Cleverman’s story is about the emergence of another, quite different Indigenous population into the light of Australian society. These people are not the known Indigenous people, they are the ‘Hairypeople’. They have been known to Indigenous people for millennia, but are unknown by Europeans. Six months after these ‘Hairies’ emerged, a near state of war develops between them and Australians (or more particularly, against the Hairies).
In the past, in actual Australian history, difference from Indigenous people was marked racially by colour of skin (as referenced by the fleeting use of the term by one Indigenous character: ‘I am a blackfella, remember’). In the nineteenth century, such difference was studied and described in highly scientific terms (such as the measurement of skull sizes and shapes). Largely, though, the prevailing view was that Europeans and Indigenous were of the same species, as humans — although the latter where classified as a ‘lower’ variation than the former (as ‘primitive’, less intelligent, less advanced).
In the fictional world of Cleverman, the Hairies have again been categorised as different. This time by DNA structure, which has in fact classified them as non human (and thus they are termed ‘sub-humans’ or ‘subbies’).
Much of the arc of the story of Cleverman is about what a society can do (and in particular the violence it can get away with) once a group of people are categorised as sub-human.
At this point we can insert here any other non-European group who has been put into the cross hairs of white European civilisation (i.e., settler colonialism). Most poignantly, in the story the Indigenous people are ironically seen as human vis-a-vis the Hairies. But of course the centuries of suppression and racialisation, together with the Indigenous respect both for the culture and the humanity of the Hairypeople, puts most of the Indigenous protagonists at risk, as ‘Hairy sympathisers’.
But the narrative is also about European attitudes to others, outside (and also within) the context of Australia: the ‘sub-humanity’ of Africans, Indigenous groups in America, various Asian contexts, and of course the ongoing stigmatisation, securitisation, and racialisation of Muslims. Cleverman coincides with the detainment of migrants on Manus Island, which overlaps with the dramatisation of the (urban) ‘Zone’ for the confinement of the Hairies and their sympathisers.
After two series, the show has explored with brutal honesty what such denial of humanity can lead to. This can include both ‘enlightened’ and violent genocide. The former through a ‘positive’ programme of assimilation (called ‘Inclusion’), the latter through a sickeningly simple portrayal of a massacre of Hairies — made most harrowing by its relation to actual massacres in white Australian history.
Alongside this, the show has also been about humanising the people it portrays. The Hairies are so named because they look different — that is they are racialised, not only as black but also as Hairy. Apart from their DNA, they also differ from ‘humans’ because of their far greater strength and physical ability, and because they live much longer (three times more than ‘humans’).
The drama humanises these ‘sub-humans’. These include, the teenage Latani (Rarriwuy Hick), forced to cope on her own after the death of her young sister and the detainment of her parents. There is also Latani’s mother Araluen (Tasma Walton), who after ‘capture’ is forced into prostitution for the ‘service’ of white male humans. In the second season, the storyline also narrativises the difficult choices of assimilation — taking the ‘kool aid’ that removes hairy-ness, which supposedly allows them to live safely among humans (albeit segregated and clearly identifiable as former Hairies). The intersectional nuances of race and gender play out in the characters.
In the racial triangulation of Cleverman, the humanisation of the Indigenous characters is extremely well done, particularly with respect to the difficulties and impossibilities of living across the ‘colour-line’ between whiteness and Indigeneity.
In Cleverman, the only moral place to be is standing with the Hairypeople.
The difficulties and ambiguities of contemporary life (and racism) are explored. This includes the protagonist Koen West (Hunter Page-Lochard), the son of an Indigenous father and white mother, whose Uncle Jimmy passes on to him the status (and power) of the Cleverman. Koen’s Aunty Linda (his father’s first wife, played by Deborah Mailman) represents some of the ‘old school’ elements of contemporary Indigenous life, whilst her actual son Waruu West (Rob Collins) compliments and mirrors the challenges of living across the two different tribes (Indigenous and white) embodied in his half-brother Koen.
Alongside these, Waruu’s wife Nerida (Jada Alberts) and her daugher Alinta (Tamala Shelton) are the strongest representations of contemporary Indigenous identity. Nerida is caught within but constantly fighting against the tripled forces of discrimination against her as an Indigenous woman with sympathies for the Hairies. In many ways, Nerida is the centre of this story.
However, I do have two concerns about Cleverman, based on what I have seen so far in the first two seasons. On one level these are relatively minor issues, but they are also significant, particularly because they most likely arise from necessary production compromises.
As the producers and writers are well aware, Indigeneity in Australia is very diverse. For the narrative and the dialogue certain decisions have had to be made. The story focuses in particular on Gumbaynggirr people of northern New South Wales, to the extent that their language, Kumbainggar is used as the language of the Hairies (even though the cast are from many other groups, speaking quite different languages).
If a white Australian (or international) TV audience had been presented with the rich diversity of Indigenous traditions, languages, and cultures then this would probably have been too much. Ryan Griffen has said that in his research he has drawn on (with permission) traditions from a number of different Indigenous cultures.
Unfortunately, to enable a smooth narrative, I think the majority of white viewers will conceptualise from Cleverman a sense of homogeneity (and unity) of Indigenous cultures and traditions. This is largely due to the serious lack of other portrayals of Indigenous cultures on television. It would be too much to squeeze the rich and deep diversity into this one drama.
Both seasons of the drama are brutal in their portrayal of institutional and systemic white racism against Hairies in particular, and also against Indigenous people. It is a direct dramatic critique of what has been — and largely still is — fundamental to Australia.
Government, media, the police, and science are all shown to be serving the interests of white supremacism. This is shown to be endemic (the popular support for the anti-Hairy actions of the ‘Department for Human Safety’), but not total.
What is not shown so much, however, is how such white supremacy can often be done with the best of intentions. Not all those who benefit from and seek to maintain the relations of power do so out of their own self interest. Some of the best of ‘allies’ can be the most complicit in the systems of oppression — after all white Australia (and much of the British empire) was built by those who thought they were doing a good thing.
Some of these ambiguities are hinted at with Charlotte (Frances O’Connor) the doctor in the Zone, and perhaps by the Containment Authority (police) officer Tim Dolan (Luke Ford). But so far the subtlety of Waruu’s conflict — doing the wrong thing for what he feels are the right reasons — have not yet been played out in full.
Perhaps the strongest dramatisation of this conflict is in Jarrod Slade himself, the most sinister of characters, and yet with his own form of sympathy to Hairies and sense of self-goodness. He is a Dr Mengele who thinks he is actually going to help (perhaps some of) the people he is harming.
In conclusion, Cleverman is a very unusual and challenging piece of television — whilst drawing on what is usually a very conservative form of action drama. It packs a hefty punch in the gut of the white audience, its main target. Few will likely expect its fierce dramatisation of racism and genocide.
It is also an ambitious attempt to represent one of the most misunderstood of Indigenous realities, that is the Dreaming.
White missionaries, anthropologists, writers, and policy makers have all struggled to work out exactly what this references and how it is so central to the diverse Indigenous societies.
The classic accounts of the central Arrernte people’s concept of altjira were folded into the heart of classic sociology through the French writer Emile Durkheim’s. In his classic theory or explanation of religion assumed that the rituals and beliefs of the Arrernte Dreaming were the basic elements of all forms of religion.
The Dreaming is often referred to as the heart of Indigenous ‘religion’ in Australia. Such an assumption does, however, simplify the diversity of understandings of the Dreaming among Indigenous people. It also categorises the significance of the concept in very particular terms (i.e, as somehow akin to forms of Christianity). Suffice to say, this is not a good starting point.
What is called the Dreaming is a series of tales and narratives. It is a way of understanding and being in the land and environment. It is a way of understanding humans and their differences. It is about things — human, creators, artwork, creations, and special objects. It is quite simply, in many different ways, central to the many different Indigenous cultures.
As Waruu states in an early episode, it is not the ‘Dreamtime’, which implies a specific, static time. The Dreaming is something that perpetually exists and is just there.
And so, it is both a help and a hindrance to focus on this element of Indigenous culture and society in an English language drama, created for a mainstream (white) Australian and international audience. Needless to say, the structures of such an action drama cannot do much to explain or even explore this powerful and diverse set of ideas and practices.
However, Cleverman is about the Dreaming, and it has to be since it is about Indigeneity in modern Australia. And so the challenges of trying to understand the Dreaming in a contemporary context are not ignored, and play out well in various ways, not least through the central character of Koen, as he becomes the Cleverman.
Indeed, as Jacob Nash, a production designer for the show has suggested on a publicity video, ‘Cleverman is a contemporary Dreaming story for 2017’.
The tension between temporality and the beyond/within time element of the Dreaming is referenced by the title of the final (sixth) episode of the second season — ‘Living on borrowed time’.
On one level this could simply refer to various characters, as the season reaches its climatic conclusion. It could also, of course, reference the predicament of the Hairypeople, in the face of the overwhelming power of security and science that is deployed against them.
But it is also the spoken words of a Hairy, as he decries the presence of white Australia in Sydney, on traditional Bindawu (Indigenous Hairy) land.
This echoes the phrase that is commonly used about Indigenous land rights:
‘always was, always will be, Indigenous land’
This is not a threat, and is certainly not presented as such in Cleverman. Instead it is rather a statement of Indigenous reality that is woven into the Hairies’ fight for survival.
And like the Cleverman storyline itself, who knows how that narrative arc will turn out in real life.
Also by Malory Nye:
This thoughtful tale about Portuguese Jesuits in 17th century Japan is also a parable for the age of Trumpmedium.com
A major new TV drama about ‘America’s birth’ is coming in 2017, so what should we expect of it?medium.com
What is the connection between contemporary whiteness and the historical development of British unionism?medium.com
It is an old story, and it is quite simple.medium.com
I must confess that I have been a fan of Downton Abbey for a number of years. But I am worried about the programme…politicsmeanspolitics.com
Main picture: Djukura (Tysan Townley), a Hairy (brother of Latani), being tortured by the Containment Authority.