Sunday, November 7, 2010

Native Son

Film: The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Plenty of people in this world love the idea of living in a simpler time. I fall into that particular trap myself sometimes. The modern world is a complicated one, and there are many times that I think it would be nice to live in a world with fewer concerns, fewer pressures, and more time to myself. That said, there are plenty of things about the modern world that make me happy to live in it. Antibiotics, painkillers, rapid transportation, and all sorts of other things make the current era far better and safer than previous ones. Another of these things is racial justice.

Don’t get me wrong—there’s still plenty of racism in the world (and one need not look any further than much of the reaction against our current president to see a lot of it). But only a fool thinks things are worse now or as bad now as they were 50 or 100 years ago. As a case in point, we’ll take The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. True, this takes place in Australia, but the underlying sentiments of the people aren’t much different than they were in large chunks of the U.S. during the Civil Rights Movement and before. True, we’re talking about Aborigines instead of African-Americans. But the connection still stands.

Racism, after all, is racism. Our main character is the eponymous Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis) is a half-caste, meaning he is half white and half Aboriginal. He is raised in a missionary school, giving him the benefit of a “white” education, although he frequently spends a great deal of time with his tribal kin out in the bush. When he has grown up (shortly after the beginning of the film), he moves away to seek his fortune in a land that, essentially, hates him. Jimmie is caught between two worlds, never fully welcome in either.

This is especially true of the white world that Jimmie aspires to. He is constantly and consistently cheated by his white bosses, who demand work (he specializes in building fences and paddocks despite his name), and dock his pay every chance they get. Eventually, he meets up with a white woman named Gilda (Angela Punch) who will have him. Of course, in wanting a white wife, Jimmie can’t be too particular—he marries Gilda when she is pregnant, and the baby she has is white, not the one-quarter caste he predicted.

When a few of his relatives come to visit, things turn ugly for the Blacksmith family. The Newby farm, where Jimmie is working is dead set against Jimmie’s relatives being a part of the package. In fact, the Newbys are so dead set against Jimmie and his family that they offer a separate place to live to his wife and her child to get her away from her “part savage” husband. When he’s refused pay and groceries for his work because of the presence of his kin, he retaliates in to most ferocious way possible—out of the blue, he attacks the man’s family with an axe, killing the wife and all three of the daughters brutally. This is a horrifying scene, since it happens out of nowhere. The brutality is sudden and terrible.

From this point on (and it’s the middle of the film with a good hour to go), Jimmie has declared war against the white world. It’s important to note here that Jimmie, while on a rampage and willing to kill anyone who stands in his way, has not become a complete monster. He allows the Newby son to escape, and rather than kill the infant child in her crib, he feeds her before taking his wife, her child, and his family on the lam into the wilderness. He then goes on a spree, hunting down everyone who wronged him, and targets the women.

So here’s the dilemma of the film. While Jimmie is undoubtedly forced into reacting against his white bosses, his reaction is so extreme that it’s almost unfathomable. His actions cannot be condoned even if his rage and frustration can be. So where do the loyalties lie here? Who is to by sympathized with? On the one hand, we have a cold-blooded killer who hacks up women. On the other, we have a society of racists. It’s easy to say that Jimmie is a product of the environment he lives in, and that is to some extent true, but it hardly allows for such brutal, heartless slayings.

I’m put in mind of three things here. The first thing that came to me was Richard Wright’s Native Son. It’s been a long time since I read that book—so long in fact that I’m sure I don’t remember all of the details of it—but Wright’s character was far more sympathetic than Jimmie Blacksmith if only because the death of the young woman was accidental in his case. However, much of the overall gist of the story and the actions of the characters in both play similarly.

The second thing I’m put in mind of is A Clockwork Orange. In that book (and film), the main character is also a product of his society, and unable to choose his own fate. Instead, at every turn, his fate is chosen for him—he reacts to what he has become by the forces that shape him rather than overcoming said forces. In the complete text of Burgess’s novel, Alex does overcome those forces, but in the version of the text first released in the U.S. and in Kubrick’s film, Alex is always a character unable to truly decide anything for himself. Instead, he’s always a product of something else.

The third thing I think of here is In Cold Blood. I’m not sure why, but there is something of Capote’s book in the crimes. The brutality, perhaps, or the heartlessness of the crimes.

And so, that’s the question with this film. Is Jimmie a product of terrible racism, and is his reaction, while extreme, understandable? These questions can’t be answered without having seen the film, I think.

Why to watch The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith: Because there are many possible results of racism, all of them bad.
Why not to watch: It’s not easy to see where one’s loyalties lie here.


  1. I'm with Jimmie. When the Law doesn't protect you, the Law doesn't apply to you. He was actually pretty patient with the Racist Society, and everybody had their chance not to be a Total Racist Douche. Jimmie hit a point where he was done with it, and he went with the only Justice available to him: Personal Justice.

    I feel the same way about Nat Turner.

  2. Good call on the similarities with A Clockwork Orange. Did not think of it, but obvious when you mention it.
    I agree on the problematic extremity of his reaction and put it down to that the authors had an undeniable, historical mass murderer, but wanted to make a movie about racism. The two stories connect imperfectly.

    1. It's hard not to sympathize a little with Jimmie, but it's also hard to sympathize with him a lot. The same is true of Alex in A Clockwork Orange.