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When Collingwood Football Club take the High Ground, Literally

I have a confession to make. I never watched Sweet Country and not because I don’t think Warwick Thorton is a genius. It’s just that as a Blackfulla and an academic interested in critical race and  Indigenous studies, when it comes to the weekend, I’m not really looking forward to watching the latest movie about colonial violence in a suburban cinema. And this is regardless of the Indigenous involvement, as writers, producers, actors or as cultural brokers in the production process, good ways. 

But here I was again this week feeling like a bad Aborigine because I was less than enthusiastic about watching both High Ground a movie about the massacre of an Aboriginal tribe in the 1900s, and Collingwood Football Club’s live press conference in response to a review that concluded there was a culture of systemic racism within the club. Yes, one of these things is just like the other. 

I had heard of the graphic massacre scene in High Ground and the distress it had caused mob, and I wasn’t too excited about watching it in full colour surround sound. Similarly, I was familiar with the racial violence that Heritier Lumumba, Adam Goodes, Nicky Winmar and Michael Long experienced at the hands of Collingwood players, supporters and/or Eddie himself, and I wasn’t convinced that Collingwood’s response would necessarily do justice to those experiences. To encounter these productions was to require of me a preparedness to encounter racial violence.

I was reluctant to relive such experiences because, in part I wasn’t convinced that I would learn anything new. But I also knew that I ran the risk of being exposed to a narration that represents a betrayal in its portrayal of things, and we typically witness this when the settlers get their hands on the script.

But look I relented, and I watched both of them begrudgingly. I shuffled in my seat and mumbled back angrily to them throughout, much like old man yells at cloud, scribbling my notes for a review that no one had commissioned me to undertake. But here we are.

The setting for both productions is the brutalisation of Black people, one a massacre site and another an overtly racist playing field. Yet despite being made aware of the extent of the brutality of the white male perpetrators, Travis is cast as the protagonist that we are supposed to believe will save the day, of the very problem he was party to. The swiftness of the shift of white men from perpetrator to the good protagonist is startling. Meanwhile the victims in the story, the surviving members of the massacre both Gutjuk and his uncle Baywara are the antagonists, the traitor and the hunted – much like Lumumba, Goodes and others. Travis and the white woman missionary, we are reminded, are the most virtuous of them all, as evidenced by the gratuitous shots of them with the surviving Aboriginal child in their arms. The end of the massacre moment of the film features at least four different shots of the Black child in their embrace. The final shot of Gutjuk as a child in the missionary woman’s arms appears out of nowhere and out of order – but it tells of the function of the shot in settler storytelling of colonial violence.

Our lasting impression must be of settler innocence in supposed courageous story telling of settler violence. These shots mirrored the repeated claims of McGuire and friends in their gratuitous use of “proud” and “good” in what was actually a moment of public disgrace for the club and McGuire himself.

The positioning of the Aboriginal character in the Collingwood press conference was strategic. The fact that Jodie Sizer had to introduce herself to the audience, who she acknowledged would be unfamiliar with her and her role, at a moment when the club was being held publicly accountable for systemic racism tells us of the function of such characters in settler accounts. The Aboriginal subject is used to alibi settler innocence, particularly in its most violent moments. Some Blackfullas refuse those kinds of walk-on roles, while some seem almost too happy to perform them.

It is not enough for the white man to be innocent, he is powerless we are told.

In High Ground, Travis literally tells the Aboriginal men that he has no power and not even the power to determine what kind of man he can be, such is the struggle for white men in the colony both then and now. McGuire, we are told by McGuire is a victim and warrior as he frames his supposed anti-racist journey as one “fraught with danger and recrimination” but a fight that he is prepared to take up, while handing over the part where they talk about racism to the Aboriginal board member. She was their first, he boasted, but not because she was Aboriginal.

In these productions, we are ushered into moving on from the violence. McGuire refused to deal with what he called “semantics” when pressed on the specific instances of racism instructing us repeatedly to “move on” as though there was nothing more to see, when we hadn’t even seen anything beyond leaked bits of their review. Similarly, in High Ground we are transported from the massacre scene to 12 years later, when one white women is allegedly killed by Gutjuk’s Uncle. The villains we are instructed are the ‘wild mob’ or alternatively, as Jodie declares, the ‘social media’ mob who are insisting on some form of accountability. They are the real barriers to tackling racism and pursuing justice it seems.

The concept of ‘systemic racism’ in the press conference, much like that of ‘colonisation’ in High Ground, is strangely framed as something white men have nothing to do with. McGuire and his mates point to racism as existing somewhere else, out there, in other clubs, in the community, and in policies, procedures and processes, but not belonging to any person, and certainly not a white man. This otherness renders them helpless, as we observed when McGuire laments having forgot his thesaurus.

The location of racism as existing elsewhere by Collingwood, is much like the stories of frontier violence which are situated in a faraway place in a faraway time. Racism, like colonialism which depends on it, is always understood as a past event, rather than ongoing process, thus the call to  move on is to move on from attending to them. Rarely do we see films of the massacres of mob along the east cost of the continent where so many of the settlers reside, and where so much of the violence was enacted. Massacres always exist out there somewhere else, the lands where lone wolves roam and bad apples fall, and is never linked to the ongoing colonial project and the settlers who are beneficiaries of it. But why would they, afterall those same settlers are the intended audience for such productions. Why would they want to watch themselves cast as the villains they are?  It is precisely these comforting distancing accounts of colonialism for settlers, that are an affront to Blackfullas who are bearing the full brunt of it, and what makes so much of it hard to stomach.

Though the saving grace of High Ground and of the whole Collingwood affair was the sovereign Aboriginal woman. Gulwirri, the female member of the wild mob barely rates a mention in the reviews of the film, similar to Distringuished Professor Larissa Behrendt, the author of that leaked review, who was referenced just once in the almost hour long press conference as “Larissa”.

Yet, it is the sovereign Aboriginal woman who is the real star of the shit show of colonialism. She is the warrior, the leader and the superhero having survived her own dehumanisation.

The sovereign Black women insists on not forgetting the lies of this place, and in particular the lies of white men. And it is not because her memory is longer, but it is because her body knows too well the violence they have inflicted. For Distinguished Professor Behrendt, this is not her first rodeo; she has suffered the violence of racism as acts, and in the acts of fighting against it, much like Gulwirri who too had been brutalised by white men for much of her life. It is she that courageously calls out cowards, while at the same time, calling upon warriors.

In their being we are reminded of the importance of being part of the ‘wild mob’, in refusing the roles that the settlers cast, as members of the mission, or as members of the board. The sovereign Black woman takes not pride in being the first of her tribe because she is more concerned with not being the last of her tribe.

It is she that is theorising and strategising our survival everyday in this place.  The sovereign Black woman, as embodied in the character of Gulwirri and the warrior that is Behrendt, are not seeking the high ground to take control like Travis and Gutjuk. Their power is not in their position, but in their very being. And we witness that power, via the strength of their bare hands, whether they hold in them a rock or a pen.

 

There is such a beauty in the sovereign Black woman in amidst the colonial violence that we are subject to and called upon to witness, so much so, it makes it all worth watching – for Blackfullas at least.

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