The BBC’s Banished Whitewashes Australian History

The news of the BBC’s new seven-part series Banished hit the news stands today. And within hours, the criticism hit the streams. After reading about Banished, I’m not surprised at the criticism.

You see, it’s about Australia. In particular it’s apparently about Governor Arthur Phillip, convicts and is set on Australian shores. And guess what? There are no Aboriginal People in the film. NOT. ONE.

view from bare island

Country around La Perouse where the First Fleet landed.

Now, as far as I can tell, Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet landed on Bidigal land (now known as LaPerouse) and later on Gadigal country. I can’t imagine how Aboriginal People could not have featured in the narrative. Others will lend this production a more historical analysis about how the invading colonists would have had the natives firmly in their minds at such an early period in colonial history. Of course, we do not yet know the story of the series, so this is very much an early criticism based on what brief information we do have.

In order to survive, production companies must make products audiences wish to see. But, as creators of the stuff of popular culture – who simultaneously reflect the ideas of the populous while also influencing what we believe – they must take some responsibility for the way that Aboriginal people are depicted (or in this case, not depicted).

I remember when I was young watching classic Australian mini-series like All the Rivers Run, and Against the Wind. There were no Aboriginal people featured, either as main characters or “within the landscape”. In the 1970s and 1980s, erasing Aboriginal people was normal. But today? After we’ve had programs like Redfern Now, Gods of Wheat Street, Black Comedy? After there has been a generation of professional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander filmmakers and storytellers? Is it still possible to tell stories of this country without Aboriginal people? I didn’t think so.

Jimmy McGovern, the series co-producer, was reported as saying,

“It is difficult to exaggerate how important is it to get the portrayal of indigenous (sic) Australians right. In recent years I have been fortunate enough to work with a  group of aborignal (sic) people as story editor on Redfern Now, a contemporary urban drama. The time-frame in Banished is very short – something just over two weeks – and there is not sufficient time to develop and do justice to indigenous characters. Hopefully if there’s another series there would be time to collaborate and get any representation right.”

McGovern’s rationale supports the existing racist assumptions that Aboriginal perspectives are too hard, that they cost time and money. We don’t let mining companies* get away with ignoring Aboriginal People, why should we let content creators?

Australian television and film ignore Aboriginal people constantly. Tonight ABC’s International Women’s Day special edition of Q and A, features not one Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander woman. So while Aboriginal invisibility is still clearly the norm in this country, they’re not going to continue to get away with it, without criticism. And these content creators better be prepared to defend themselves.

Clearly Australians need to stop pretending they’re good people.

*though clearly they do get away with things all the time.