Following its favourable preview at Berlinale, the new six-part ABC drama Cleverman arrived on our small screens with much expectation.
And with good reason. This is an almost wholly Indigenous creative initiative, driven by Ryan Griffen, and directed by well-respected Indigenous directors Wayne Blair and Leah Purcell, and with an 80% Indigenous cast.
It’s also an example of very clever writing. Drawing on traditional Aboriginal culture, Cleverman takes 60,000 years of backstory and refashions it into a modern-day superhero story.
Both the Cleverman (also known as the ‘Kadaitcha’) and the Hairymen feature readily in Aboriginal folklore. In the series, the Cleverman is the conduit between humans and the sub-human and powerful Hairypeople or ‘Hairies’.
The Hairies can live for more than 200 years, and have formidable metaphysical strength and awareness, and, while they do share some cross-cultural understanding with the Aboriginal people, they don’t share human DNA.
In the varied community, there are ‘shavers’ (those who learn English and choose to remove their hair in order to blend in with society), and ‘non-shavers’ (who resolutely remain covered in a coat of hair and retain their traditional languages).
The storyline centres on protagonist Koen (Hunter Page-Lochard) and his half-brother Waruu (Rob Collins). Koen is something of the black sheep as he and his associate Blair (Ryan Corr) play the dangerous game of smuggling Hairies to safe havens—and then subsequently reporting them to authorities—in order to finance their business.
Aboriginal actor and hip-hop artist Adam Briggs plays head Hairy Boondee, Tasma Walton is his wife Araluen and Rarriwuy Hick is Latani. Rounding out the cast are Iain Glen (Game of Thrones), Frances O’Connor (A.I. Artificial Intelligence), Deborah Mailman (The Secret Life of Us) and Stef Dawson (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1), among others.
But while Aboriginal culture obviously takes centre stage, the series also reflects more broadly on racism, asylum seekers and border protection.
As Jack Latimore, a ‘Goori from the Birpai nation in New South Wales’, writes in The Guardian: ‘The parallel with the Australian Government’s policy approach to asylum seekers is obvious.
‘But there’s a more historical reference at play here too: the experiences of First Nations people during the White Australia era. It could also be an allegory for the political situation surrounding the influx of refugees into Europe, or Trump’s border wall rhetoric.’
It’s also difficult to ignore the biblical presence of the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel in the central theme revolving around the two estranged Indigenous brothers. Of course, in the Bible, we know how the story ended (spoiler alert: one brother killed the other), but this is yet to be played out on the small screen.
Instead, for their own survival, the brothers are forced to work together under the banner of a reconciliation—a message for our times if there ever was one.