Black and White

Rated - TEPID

Black and White, a new Australian feature film, is based on the true story of Rupert “Max” Stuart, an Aborigine.  Max was charged – and convicted – of raping and murdering a nine-year-old white girl, Mary Olive Hatton, in South Australia in 1958.

Max’s lawyers, David O’ Sullivan (played by Robert Carlisle, from The Full Monty and Hamish Macbeth) and Helen Devaney (Kerry Fox, from Intimacy and Shallow Grave) are given the case through a “lottery system” run by the South Australian Law Society.  Their challenge is to defend an itinerant, illiterate and alcoholic black man accused of raping and murdering a little white girl. They quickly realise that the only real evidence against their client – Max’s typed and signed confession – has been beaten out of him by the police.  They appeal Max’s conviction all the way to the Privy Council.

It’s a powerful story, and the case was one of a series that led to major changes in the Australian legal system.   Within 10 years the Privy Council was no longer the final Court of Appeal in the Australian legal system.  The case also hastened the end of capital punishment in Australia.  It caused a furore in South Australia, forcing a Royal Commission. The debate was fuelled by extensive coverage in the Adelaide newspaper The News, run by the young Rupert Murdoch (Ben Mendelsohn).

The pivotal role of Murdoch and The News in the case foreshadows the role of the mass media in driving debate and shaping opinions on social issues today.  The case also focused attention on the status of the Aboriginal people who did not even have citizenship until after the national referendum of 1967.

The film sets the scene quickly.  We see the beach at Ceduna (around 770kms west of Adelaide) where a little girl is playing.  We see a search by the police and the local citizens.   Max is arrested as he emerges from the bushes behind his tent: “I’m not hiding boss,” he says.  We see Max’s interrogation by the police, and we see him sign a confession. The trial is set in motion, and Max’s fate seems sealed.

What follows is a story well told, and a film masterfully shot by director of photography Geoffrey Simpson (Oscar and Lucinda and Shine).  Simpson and director Craig Lahiff capture the beauty of both the wild and remote South Australian coastal landscape, and the rich leathers and warm timbers of the courts and public buildings of 1950s Adelaide.  In fact many of the locations used in the film were the real-life locations:  Parliament House, the Supreme Court and the club where O’Sullivan, Delaney and Murdoch used to drink.

The lead cast is well chosen, with David Ngoombujarra immaculate as Max Stuart.  His performance is restrained, but moving.  Screenplay writer Louis Nowra gives him some wonderful lines.  At one point after Max’s execution is stayed, and then his case is reopened, Max asks “These people, they going to kill me again?”  And later:  “I’m a long way from home.  Maybe when they kill me I’ll go home.”

But the screenplay also contains some clangers too. Was the expression “Ladies who Lunch” around in 1959?   Didn't Stephen Sondheim coin it in the 1980s?  Would a Crown Prosecutor (Sir Roderick Chamberlain, a steely performance by Charles Dance) really say to his guests in 1959: “If you’re all sitting comfortably, I’ll begin”?  There were more than a few lines like those that jarred.

Despite the thrilling and important story, and for all the fine performances, the film never achieves the brilliance of some of the great cinematic courtroom dramas.  Max Stuart received 7 stays of execution, yet all of the excruciating tension is missing.  Black and White does not compare with a film like I Want to Live (1958, Robert Wise), which tells the harrowing true story of Barbara Graham’s execution in the USA.  Nor does Black and White hold us in the grip of suspense like To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Robert Mulligan) or Twelve Angry Men (1957, Sidney Lumet).  Director Craig Lahiff seems always to hold something back.

Black and White exposes a story not well known to our generation.  It is not a great film and it could have delivered much more. But it gives lawyers, and others, much to think about.

Black and White opened in cinemas across Australia at the end of October 2002.  The book, The Stuart Case, by K S Inglis, first published by Melbourne University Press in 1961, has been brought up-to-date by the author and reissued in 2002 by Black Inc, Melbourne.

© Michèle M Asprey 2002

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