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Byron Shire
January 20, 2022

Comment: Celluloid heroes of yesteryear

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As a kid growing up in rural NSW during the 1950’s and 60’s, all of my screen heroes were white.

Audie Murphy, Randolph Scott, Jeff Chandler, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, James Dean and other movie stars excited my imagination and provided a welcome escape from a life lived in poverty and at the margins of white society.

Professor Bob Morgan is a Gumilaroi man from Walgett in western NSW. Photo supplied.

Audie Murphy was the actor I was most enthralled by, and I would pester my mother for the money to allow me to attend the local picture theatre with my mates to watch him and my other celluloid heroes.

Murphy’s own life story began in abject poverty in Texas, USA. To fend for his family he joined the army just days after his 17th birthday.

Murphy became America’s most decorated soldier of World War II, winning three Purple Hearts and one Medal of Honour.

Tragically Murphy was killed in a plane crash in May, 1971.

His autobiographical story was captured in the movie To Hell and Back in which he played himself.

On days when the weather is better suited to watching DVDs than outdoor activities, I put the movie on and am transported to my youth – a time I shared with mates who are now mostly gone.

I recall the adventures we witnessed on the silver screen and the memories we created.

The best movie times were when my mates and I attended the Saturday afternoon matinees and, as young boys do of course, we would relive and play out the adventures of our heroes who enchanted us as we watched from our segregated seats in the local theatre.

This was a time of discrimination and bigotry, when our entry to the theatre was restricted to the very front rows.

People of colour were largely missing from the silver screen during the early age of celluloid magic.

Roles were limited and almost always involved racialized ‘bit’ parts informed and defined by stereotypical cliches.

It is a little-known fact that Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in the US civil war classic Gone with the Wind, won the 1940 Best Supporting Oscar for her performance.

The ceremony was hosted at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles which had a strict whites-only policy, and McDaniel was able to attend only after producer David O. Selznick won special permission for her to do so.

She was forced to sit at a different table to where other Gone with the Wind stars were seated.

It is reported that Clark Gable threatened to boycott the Oscars ceremony unless McDaniel was allowed to attend.

Although there were black nominees over the years, it wasn’t until 1963 when a black male, Sidney Poitier, another boyhood hero, became the first black man to win an Oscar for his role in Lillies of the Field.

However, it was Poitier’s portrayal of a black teacher with an all-white class in To Sir with Love that in some respects turned me on to the potential transformative power of education.

As a young boy fast growing into adolescence I was intrigued by girls, both in my life, and on the silver scene.

The girls who featured in the movies at this time in history were all white of course, and Hayley Mills was a favourite, along with Sandra Dee from the Gidget movies.

There were very few black women or women of colour in movies or on TV during this era, and, in Australia, Aboriginal women just didn’t feature at all.

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks was the first Aboriginal woman I became aware of on the big screen, when she appeared in the 1955 movie, Jedda.

But it was Justine Saunders, a friend from my days living and working in Sydney, who made me sit up and take notice.

During the 1970s, Justine had roles in some of Australia’s most iconic movies and television shows, including The Chant of Jimmie BlacksmithPrisonerNumber 96, A Country Practice, and The Flying Doctors to name but a few.

Sadly, Justine died from cancer in 2007.

Today, thankfully, things are changing, and we are now blessed with Aboriginal actors the calibre of Mark Coles Smith, Miranda Tapsell, Madeleine Madden, Nakkiah Lui, Jimi Bani, Shareena Clanton, Jack Charles, Jessica Mauboy, the mega talented Deborah Mailman, and of course the brilliant David Gulpilil.

On the other side of the camera are young and gifted movie makers including Rachel Perkins, Ivan Sen, Warwick Thornton, Wayne Blair and Beck Cole who tread the paths laid by other Aboriginal people such as Madeline McGrady, Lorraine Mafi-Williams, and Tracey Moffatt.

Long overdue change is being forced by these pioneers and others. May their star forever shine.

Professor Bob Morgan is a Gumilaroi man from Walgett in western NSW. He is a highly respected and acknowledged Aboriginal educator/researcher who has worked extensively throughout Australia and internationally in the field of Aboriginal knowledge and learning for over forty years.

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  1. You forgot Calamity Jane in the Windy City. The audience cheering when the cavalry came and dodged the bows and arrows .
    Happy memories.

  2. It is enlightening to see such honesty revealed.
    Bob’s self confessed obsession with his racist views, which he freely admits to, are long held since child-hood, when such views were more common.
    It does occur to me that, by now he should be better informed and less dependant on the race card to base his whole relevance on.
    Alas, it seem Bob is captive to his out-dated and irrelevant prejudices, however commercially exploitable he has found them.
    Cheers, G”)


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