BORN-AGAIN BLAKFELLA: UNCLE JACK CHARLES

By Roberto Chuter

One of the most frightening scenes in Fred Schepisi’s 1978 film adaptation of Thomas Keneally novel “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” is sodomy and murder of blackfella Harry Edwards. This character was played by a young and talented aboriginal actor named Jack Charles.

I came across Jack Charles again while researching Jack Hibberd’s play “Dimboola” for the anniversary season to be produced at La Mama Theatre. This was a film again, but vastly different in tone and character. An even younger Jack Charles appears playing the energetic (and mainly drunk) Mutton in the Pram Factory’s 1973 film “Dimboola: The Stage Play”.

They say that good things come in threes, well this was certainly the case in 2014 when in front of a live audience I interviewed award-winning filmmaker Amiel Courtin-Wilson whose intimate documentary “Bastardy” (2008) chronicled the life of Jack Charles over seven years. The film’s tagline boasted – ‘Addict. Homosexual. Cat burglar. Actor. Aboriginal.’ Really, there was no need to boast, the film itself stands alone – although its starts fairly heavy handed. But what follows is provocative, funny and profoundly moving. He was now Uncle Jack Charles.

“If I hide anything it wouldn’t be a true depiction,” says Uncle Jack, as he plunges a needle of heroin into his vein. Simon Foster, the SBS Reviewer wrote: “The most significant achievement of “Bastardy” is its confidence to allow the viewer scope to interpret its intentions. As a portrait of a damaged man, ravaged by substance abuse and poorly exploiting the natural gifts bestowed upon him, the film is insightful, personal and candid; more broadly, Courtin-Wilson invites the viewer to see his film as a commentary – society’s shameful disdain for the homeless, Australia’s disregard for its fallen artists, the inexplicable invisibility – to all but those that know him – of an old man junkie. “Bastardy” never demands you consider these themes, but it trusts you will.”

“I sleep in the ladies toilet because it smells nicer, ” says Uncle Jack smiling. How can you not watch a doco about this roguish actor and thief? I was intrigued, curious and wanted to know more about Uncle Jack and so I did. He was born on 05 September 1943. One of the many victims of the Government’s forced “assimilation programme” (called the ‘Stolen Generation’) which forcibly took him from his Bunurong mother when he was only a few months old. He was raised in the Salvation Army Boys’ Home in Box Hill, the only Indigenous child, where he suffered sexual abuse and was told he was an orphan.

Uncle Jack has always been searching, trying to find out who he was. The isolation and loneliness that he experienced over those years had a devastating impact on Uncle Jack that endured long after he found his stolen identity. A few years ago after reconnecting with his Aboriginal roots he discovered who is father was, and that he is a Wiradjuri man, a Boon Wurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, Woiwurrung and Yorta Yorta.

In December 2014, after much difficulty trying to find Uncle Jack, I eventually invited him to be interviewed at Chapel Off Chapel along with another guest rock musician, singer/songwriter Dave Graney. Uncle Jack warmly accepted and it was an absolute hoot, the live audience were enamoured. Acknowledged as the ‘grandfather of Aboriginal theatre’ in Australia, Uncle Jack co-founded the first Aboriginal Theatre Company – ‘Nindethana’ in 1972. His acting career spans over six decades appearing in numerous films and TV series including “Rake”, “Rosehaven”, “Wolf Creek”, “Mystery Road”, “The Gods of Wheat Street”, “Woodley”, “Women of the Sun”, “Rush” and “Ben Hall”. Not to mention the many plays and talks to boot.

In 2009, Uncle Jack was awarded the prestigious Tudawali Award at the Message Sticks Festival, honouring his lifetime contribution to Indigenous media. He was also the recipient of a Green Room Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014 and in 2016 was named Victorian Senior Australian of the Year and more recently he received the Red Ochre Award. Not bad for a former drug addict and petty criminal with a lot of prison time up his sleeve!.

Fast forward to late 2019 and I am in St. Kilda Library flipping through the pages of a book about 9/11 when a flyer is thrusted at me by one of the librarians. Uncle Jack again. This time it was the book launch of his autobiography “Born Again Blakfella” (written with Namila Benson) at the library. So I rock up in the evening to hear him speak to a packed room. I didn’t want to miss it – none of his magic had dissipated and at 74 years he was still alert, warmly political and entertaining as always. After an affectionate embrace and a brief exchange with this pint-sized dynamo, I left smiling, his signed book in my hand.

Uncle Jack Charles is one of the nations most respected and enduring personalities, a strong role model for a new generation of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. And thank goodness.