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Black and White
2002 - n/a - 99 Mins.
Director: Craig Lahiff
Producer: Helen Leake and Nik Powell
Written By: Louis Nowra
Starring: Robert Carlyle, Charles Dance, David Ngoombujarra, Kerry Fox, Colin Friels
Review by: Jennie Kermode
Another of those quiet, worthy little films which Robert Carlyle appears in between playing psychopaths, 'Black and White' recreates the story of Max Stuart, an Australian Aboriginal man who was arrested in 1959 for the alleged rape and murder of a nine year old white girl. It's still hard for me, living in modern Scotland, to understand just how Australia - especially in its remote rural areas - functioned in 1959, with so much institutionalised racism in what at first glance was a civilised society. There is little doubt that racism affected the outcome of Stuart's trial and subsequent appeals. Despite this, neither his guilt *nor* his innocence has ever been proven, and this film does acknowledge that some of those involved in his prosecution were sincere in their belief that he was a violent criminal who needed to be punished. This balancing act is crucial to its theme of compromise and uncertainty. It is a powerful proposition. Unfortunately, 'Black and White' has neither the energy nor the conviction to pull it off.

Slow from the start and never succeeding in arousing passion from its audience, 'Black and White' is really too careful for its own good. There is some solid acting here. David Ngoombujarra is superb as the accused man, delivering parallel performances to reflect the different perspectives of those involved in his trial. It's no easy task to play an illiterate alcoholic speaking haltingly in his second language, showing his vulnerability without sentimentalising him or making him seem like an idiot. Robert Carlyle works hard as his lawyer, but struggles to bring much life to this portrait of a man almost always out of his depth. Charles Dance is good as the ambitious prosecutor, making some impressive speeches, but he's let down by a crude script which falls too easily into the trap of patronising the upper classes. Playing the class card in this scenario is a cheap trick, and it's curious that a film so concerned about prejudice against Aborigines makes no effort to balance out anti-English racism. Similarly tacky is the focus on a female lawyer's drinking problem, which seems present only to remind us that it's not only Aborigines who find themselves tempted by alcohol. A film of this type might reasonably expect its audience to be able to figure out things like that for themselves.

Max Stuart's story remains an interesting one, and represents an important moment in Australian legal and social history. Oddly, it doesn't seem to provide enough material here, perhaps because 'Black and White' is trying to hard to avoid being emotive. What is essential in a film of this type is a strong sense of place and character, both of which are largely lacking. The fate of the little girl simply doesn't shock the way it should. Neither does the fate awaiting Stuart, despite some admittedly impressive directing in adjacent scenes. Though it is quite watchable, viewers without a serious interest in the issues are likely to become impatient some time before the end.
Movie Guru Rating
Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not. Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not. Average but solid.  Fans of this genre will probably enjoy it.  Others may not.
  3 out of 5 stars

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