David Gulpilil: Long Overdue

Jul 28, 2015 by Nickelodeon on The Nickelodeon Blog

1/8th of David Gulpilil’s film roles have been nameless racializations like “Aborigine” (The Right Stuff) and “Black Boy” (his debut, at 15, in Nicholas Roeg’s mostly unimpeachable Walkabout). Within and beyond these constraints, he has become the most identifiable indigenous Australian actor in the world, and with good reason. He manages what few performers ever have, a simultaneous liveliness and reservation, the projection of a full but inaccessible interior life. Most directors he worked with activated this ability in service of an old, boring trope: the wise, impenetrable black advisor to a white man.

Now in his 60s, he has given himself a long-overdue role beyond the margins.

Working with director Rolf de Heer, in whose Ten Canoes and The Tracker Gulpilil also starred, he wrote Charlie’s Country, the story of an indigenous Australian much like himself. The film is less autobiographical than simply self-referential, but we still might say that Gulpilil inhabits as much as he plays Charlie, who spends his days hunting, drinking, chumming around with his community, fighting the white officers policing that community, and eventually retreating into the Australian wild. The film’s narrative is textural rather than linear, concerned above all with the Aboriginal day-to-day after the thorough, murderous colonization that remains as hidden, tragic, and unresolved as all other colonizations. Playing off of his public struggles with alcohol, his image as the cinematic Aborigine par excellence, and his international status as indigenous emissary, Gulpilil uses Charlie to recenter the bodily and emotional humanity of Aboriginal life within a stacked system. Charlie’s Country is an expression of the subaltern, a voice from an unheard group. It does not sound like a cry, though, but a resigned chuckle, a cracked smile with laugh lines and crows’ feet: the signs of stress and age.

—Mike Opal

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