Up Where I Belong - Nice Coloured Girls

(Tracey Moffatt, 1987)

Tracey Moffatt’s filmography is located at the end of this article. For a complete bibliography on Tracey Moffatt, visit the Australian Film Institute’s Bibloz at http://www.cinemedia.net/AFI Nice Coloured Girls is distributed by the AFI.

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Nice Coloured Girls (1987) was written and directed by Tracey Moffatt, an Australian Aboriginal artist working in film, photography and video. It is an unusual film in that it is quite different to the documentaries and realist dramas of contemporary Aboriginal filmmakers and to ethnographic documentaries of the past. Moffatt has set out to counter dominant representations, to challenge the notion of what constitutes an Aboriginal film and to explore how representations throughout history have constructed her identity and that of her race. In doing this, she draws attention to the means by which history itself is constructed and also, how film constructs meaning. Unlike the bulk of films about Aboriginal people which are set in the outback and portray Aboriginals in a community environment, the setting for Nice Coloured Girls is primarily the urban landscape and shows the central characters, three Australian Aboriginal women, in their element.

The story revolves around three Australian Aboriginal women who ‘cruise’ through Kings Cross and pick up a “Captain” (a drunken white man). They encourage him to spend his money on them, to drink until incapacitated while they steal his wallet and race off to catch a cab, self satisfied. The soundscape recalls a rural environment, and the voice-over of colonist, Lieutenant William Bradley, reading from his diary entries, recalls the first settlement. The sense of history established through this soundscape is juxtaposed with the story of the three women, linking the past with the present.

The film confronts orthodox histories of colonial race and gender relations. The use of colonial documents (through the voice-over of Lieutenant Bradley’s diaries) recalls the arrival of the First Fleet and the beginning of dispossession for black Australians. The relationship between black women and white men in the film is romantic and paternal (characteristic of early relations but not of contemporary ones) and this serves to illustrate both the naivety and self-deception of the writers of the colonial documents and the astuteness of the women. The colonists are shown to be naive because they believe the women need protection but the women, in fact, have a clear understanding of how interracial relations work and how to manipulate the situation to their advantage to get what they want. The depicted relationship between Aboriginal women and white men links the contemporary Aboriginal women with their female ancestors. Another link to the women’s ancestors is the subtitle which informs the audience that they call the white men “Captains” because that is what their grandmothers called them. A continuity of cultural identity is confirmed.

One of Moffatt ‘s motivations is to counter unrealistic and stereotyped images of black Australian women in film, Aboriginal women as victims for example. The women’s story is subtitled, a technique used by Moffatt to signify ethnographic documentaries which constitute the majority of past representations of Aboriginal people on film. In Nice Coloured Girls, Moffatt acknowledges “official” accounts of history and the representation of Aboriginal women in particular, in order to re-interpret and re-write this history from her own experience and knowledge. Through her own experience she re-defines the stereotype of Aboriginal women as victims of white men found in such “official” accounts by showing the way they perform tricks and maneuvers to undermine and subvert racial prejudices to their own advantage. Moffatt shows Aboriginal women as powerful and aware of their own subjugation.

History is represented as repeating itself in this film. The subtitles in the film tell us that the relatives don’t like the women to follow in their footsteps, in particular, the act of ‘picking up’ Captains. But the women have to because they don’t have any money; this emphasizes the historical continuities of exploitation. It is also a comment on the economic position of women at the time the film was made. In 1987 Aboriginal women were in a very similar economic situation to their ancestors following the settlement by the First Fleet. The main difference is that black women, today, are the exploiters and not the white men as in the representations of the past; yet I think Moffatt is also saying that Aboriginal women have always had a kind of power and have always understood how to manipulate the situation to their advantage. Moffatt gives us a view that economic concerns are and have been the basis for the relationship between blacks and whites.

The myth of the white seducer is turned around as roles are reversed in this film. Vikki Riley notes that we cut from the voice-over of the colonist to King’s Cross 1987 where the “tributes of beads and button necklaces have been replaced with the great Australian gesture of offering the woman a smoke” (1).

The film reflects Moffatt’s response to dominant representations. Bruce Molloy notes: “Treatment of stories involving Aborigines has been infrequent in the Australian film industry until recent times….Where Aboriginal characters occur, the tendency was to present them either as figures of fun, simple-minded and easily deluded” (2). The white male attitude to the Aboriginal woman as a pliable object of lust is shown in the film to have developed and continued over the last 200 years, however, the women are shown to have manipulated this to their advantage and countered the stereotype of powerlessness and domination.

Moffatt said of the film that “it is about vulnerability on both sides” (3). She avoids stereotypes; the white man is just a ‘sucker’ taken for a ride and not the predator or exploiter and the Aboriginal women are neither “shy maids” nor “wanton strumpets”. The women are resourceful, have a sense of humour, comradeship and are not victims but survivors. Without malice or sentiment they accept their lot and the survival tactics required. Various contradicting codes work to establish this image: the white dresses (symbol of purity and innocence), the setting of King’s Cross which is the mythical center of prostitution in Sydney, the “NICE” girls in the title, the nasty girl in the Aretha Franklin soundtrack and the “Covent Garden strumpet”. All these contradictions serve to develop more realistic, rounded characters which defy the stereotype.

Karen Jennings says of the film “It is reductionist to see it simply as a film about the ‘coloured girls’ who take revenge for 200 years of white oppression by ripping off a symbolic white ‘Captain’. Instead, I read it as a film which establishes a dynamic interplay between a number of binary oppositions: nice girls/nasty girls; white culture/black culture; the past/the present; the predator/prey; exploiter/exploited” (4).

As Anne Summers explains, two images of women, which developed from first settlement, are deeply imbedded in our culture: Damned Whores and God’s Police. All women were categorized as whores because in the first two decades they almost exclusively came to Australia as convicts: they were abused on the ships and the stigma of the “damned whore” not only stuck but developed a social structure in the penal colony (the resonance of this is still felt today). God’s Police were the good and virtuous women who came later when Australian society had developed to the point where it could attract free settlers. A new nation began to emerge, there was a desire for an evolution from a penal colony to respectable society; part of the desire was that those in power wanted women to be wives, not whores, but a strong motivation seems to be a desire to eradicate the evidence of the nation as a penal colony. Summers quotes C. D. Rowley: “Aboriginal women carried a double burden. As women, they were seen as sexual objects and fair game for white men; as members of a subject people they were also victims of the whole range of indignities bestowed by a brutal invading colonialism which considered itself to be the master race” (5). Moffatt’s response in the film is both to being a woman and an Aboriginal and casting off the shackles of the representations of both.

The soundtrack enables the film to flow in and out of various time continuums through the voice-over and sound effects such as rowboats, snatches of Aboriginal language and bird cries. The sounds of the urban and rural landscape are heard simultaneously and the dislocation between sound and image is one of the elements which make Nice Coloured Girls an innovative film. An example of such dislocation is the film’s ending (which also echoes the beginning): the image is a shot of the cityscape while the audio consists of a soundscape of the rural environment and the colonists voice-over. Other examples include the visuals fading in and out from colour to black and white and then to sepia (and visa-versa).

At the time of the production affirmative, anti-racist action was well in place and the ideology dictated that black Australians (and all Australian women) should be portrayed positively. Nice Coloured Girls was made with the assistance of the Women’s Film Fund of the Australian Film Commission. Moffatt received some negative reactions following screenings of the film and Jennings relates: “Some viewers have been alienated by what they perceive as its endorsement of exploitation, seeing it as a revenge story or a tale of ‘urban terrorism’. Some (including a number of Aboriginal women) have seen it as reinforcing negative stereotypes of amoral Aboriginal women – stereotypes which have justified and perpetuated the exploitation of Aboriginal women since the invasion” (6). However, I feel that it was Moffatt’s intention to create a realistic representation which has numerous dimensions and, as I’ve already stated, a contradiction of dominant stereotypes.

I believe that Moffatt’s personal history as a successful and articulate Aboriginal woman is reflected in the ideology of the film and therefore has contributed to or interacted with the history represented. She was educated to tertiary level, giving her an educated background and skills to back up her view with her work. She operates effectively and successfully within the dominant culture and this is why she sees Aboriginal women as powerful and seeks to further empower them with her representation of history. (Although Moffatt is conscious of the lack of power Aboriginal people have and the discrimination which has and does have a profound impact on everyday life, it is my reading that she sees herself as powerful and of Aboriginal women having control of white male/Aborigine female relations.) The title of the film also directly reflects her experience of growing up during the 1960’s in Queensland: “White Queensland talked about ‘coloured girls’ because it wasn’t nice to say Aboriginal or black” (7).

Moffatt’s work history is a significant part of the production history of the film; she has made numerous films on Aboriginal issues (particularly as they relate to Aboriginal women) and has been active in Aboriginal politics. She was involved (at the same time as Nice Coloured Girls) in the production of Women ’88 (a Women’s Program of The Australian Bicentennial Authority: a film celebrating the diversity of women’s contributions to Australian life over the past two hundred years). Nice Coloured Girls was made the year after Ross Gibson’s film Camera Natura (1986) and both films comment on the imposition of a European way of seeing and representing the landscape. As a reasonably acclaimed local film, I believe Moffatt would have seen and possibly have been influenced by Camera Natura. In addition, her work as a photographer explores similar issues as her films. The series ‘Some Lads’ for example, a series of studio portraits of black male dancers, which uses the conventions derived from nineteenth century ethnographic studies of Aboriginals but changes the intentions, as this quote from Moffatt illustrates: “I encourage my subjects to enjoy the staring camera (in contrast to the uncomfortable glaring in the earlier century photographs), to intentionally pose and show off” (8).

A recurring image within Nice Coloured Girls is the typical nineteenth century European print of the Australian landscape or tall ships. This is a polite landscape which reflects the European vision/representation of the Australian landscape (much as the landscape is represented in the film Camera Natura) and is just another aspect of European colonization. Shane McNeil interviewing Moffatt said: “Ann Kaplan in her article about Nice Coloured Girls says the film frame works as a “frame” and also for a metaphor for the way white history has framed Aboriginal culture” (9). (Kaplan’s view is further elaborated at the end of the following paragraph.)

One of the more perplexing scenes in terms of what it might mean is the sequence where the black hand sprays black paint over a European landscape drawing of what appears to be Sydney cove (rolling hills to the sea and a sail boat serenely in the water) and then a black hand smashes this glass to reveal the landscape still intact. There are various possible meanings. It may be metaphorically rewriting history by spraying over the image (although the landscape remains intact underneath implying the dominant representations are always there). Jennings sees it as “metaphorically describing the impact of white settlement on Aboriginal culture”; however she sees the hand as a white hand smashing the glass and it is clearly black (10). Harding says that “The Aboriginal women reject it (the European landscape drawing) by painting it black and smashing the glass” (11). The voice-over perhaps supports this reading: during this sequence the audience hear the story of a black woman who had a half-cast child and attempted to “supply by art what she found deficient in nature.” Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and each culture beholds in its own way. Aboriginal artists in contrast to those of European origin don’t put their art behind glass, desert art is left to be changed by the elements; the scene of the hand painted onto white and then black skin recalls the form of traditional art as it runs almost immediately. This is perhaps a comment on white culture in opposition or contrast to black culture. Ann Kaplan says ” it encapsulates in one image the Anglo-Celtic tendency to “frame” the Aboriginal past, as a way of distancing it, putting it indeed “over there”, in a narrative, that is past, ended, closed; as a way of preventing the past from erupting into the present, disturbing the status quo…The reference back to the past “frames” the contemporary heroines’ actions.the picture on the wall breaking, and the scenes from the past. We are permitted to glimpse into some young Aborigines’ way of seeing their world” (12).

Central to the film is the issue of assimilation. The colonist’s diaries (in voice-over) meet the modern day urban Aboriginals, a startling and poignant disjunction. The attraction and repulsion felt on both sides is indicated numerous times, for example, the women find the men revolting and their glances at each other confirm this; on the dance floor the film zooms in and out from the black woman’s face, the evident repugnance/attraction of the white man to the black women emphasized. The film revolves around what Moffatt claims is a “modern day urban Aboriginal ritual: the practice of picking up a captain” (13). She states: “Picking up a captain is a very Aboriginal thing to do…Sometimes I wonder if it hasn’t always been this way since the Europeans first arrived and has developed into a way of surviving for a lot of urban Aboriginal people.” The women operate very effectively within white culture and embrace its diversity, including Italian restaurants and discos; as they walk down the street in the opening sequence, we hear a bit of the ‘Monkeys’ singing: “Here, we come, walking down the street…” which makes the Aboriginal women appear confident and in control and also signifies American culture as a pervasive presence in contemporary Australian society. A theme of the film which relates to assimilation is the pressure on Aboriginal people to become white in dress, behaviour and values. The colonist praises them when they are modest as their sex requires. Aboriginal people have been subject to the white view that they are an inferior race and the lack of respect by white Australian for the culture of black Australians is a part of our history. Images of ‘Australianness’ in film and in the culture have excluded the Aboriginal except for offering stereotypes of the Aboriginal, and Moffatt as a young, educated and urban Aboriginal woman is attempting to redress this.

Given that in 1989 Moffatt made Night Cries A Rural Tragedy, a film based on the 1955 Charles Chauvel film Jedda, we know that Moffatt was interested in past representations of Australian Aboriginal people and sought to redress the inadequacies of these representations (she has also expressed this in several interviews). Jedda and other films such as Chauvel’s earlier film Uncivilized (1936) offer similar thematic concerns to Nice Coloured Girls in that they portray the difficulties and problems of assimilation, the cultural tensions, the white view of the Aboriginal as untamable and uncivilized, and in particular, the sexual basis which was part of the formula of earlier films.

Bruce Molloy analyzes both Jedda and Uncivilized (14). In Jedda, the first film to give top billing to Aboriginal over white players, Doug (played by George Simpson Little) says to Sarah, Jedda’s white mother (played by Betty Suttor), when trying to convince her to let Jedda go on walkabout, “They don’t tame, only on the surface”. Jedda remains in a no-man’s land, unable to join her people but unable to assimilate. The film also explores the importance of dress and food as indices of civilization; also an issue in Nice Coloured Girls where the women appeal to the colonist when they behave demurely and don the appropriate dress. Jedda is about a black girl raised by a white mother (just as Moffatt was). According to Molloy, the basic opposition in Uncivilized is between civilization and savagery (a dominant theme in black/white relations historically). This is also a theme of Nice Coloured Girls.

In my research, I discovered that Moffatt’s influences include Charles Chauvel and Nicholas Roeg. I found it interesting that both Chauvel and Roeg had made films with the title Walkabout. The Chauvel version was a thirteen and a half hour documentary series funded by the BBC and screened in 1959. It compares Australia with European, British and American aspects of geographical scale and development and was titled Australian Walkabout when screened in Britian. It included episodes where the Chauvels went on a walkabout with an Aboriginal group and was as much a tour of the Aboriginal culture by outsiders as it was an exploration of the landscape. The Roeg version (1971) was a narrative based on the Alan Marshall novel where two children are stranded alone in the desert and an Aboriginal boy leads them back to civilization. Anthony Boyle says of the film that it “studies the relationship of two cultures which exist side by side” (15). Both Walkabout productions explore many similar themes to Moffatt’s work (although not in the same way or with the same viewpoint) and provide a context for the discourse she offers in this film.

The style chosen by Moffatt is anti-realist in Nice Coloured Girls (and her later film Night Cries A Rural Tragedy). The visual language of the film is strongly figurative; symbolic devices are used to economically evoke times and places (such as climbing of the rope ladder and the arms pulling at the bag of money) and she subverts dominant cinematic conventions (such as with the use of fluid temporal and spatial zones). The effect of this approach is to provoke the audience into awareness of the actual existence of filmmaking and narrative codes and thus induce an active, analytic, critical approach from the audience.

Nice Coloured Girls is a ground-breaking film stylistically and thematically. The audience is left to question history, in particular the reliability of primary sources. The absence of the Aboriginal point of view in Australia’s ‘history’ becomes glaringly obvious as we are left to question the nature of traditional representations of Aborigines. As Australians, Aboriginal people have been marginalized and stereotyped but Moffatt who is a young, contemporary Aboriginal Australian offers an Aboriginal perspective through her work and questions dominant representations which have excluded Aborigines (or offered unrealistic images of them).

Tracey Moffatt Filmography

1997 Heaven (Director, video, 28mins)

1995 My Island Home (Director, video clip, Christine Anu)

1994 Let My Children Be (Director, video clip, Ruby Hunter)

1993 BeDevil (Writer/Director/Actor, feature, 90mins)

1993 The Messenger (Director, video clip, INXS)

1990 Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (Writer/Director, short film, 17mins)

1990 Its Up to You (Director, documentary short, 9mins)

1988 A Change of Face (Writer/Co-director, documentary series, SBS TV)

1988 Moodeitj Yorgas (Solid Women) (Writer/Director, documentary short film, 22mins)

1987 Nice Coloured Girls (Writer/Director/Producer, short film,16mins)

1987 Watch Out / Women 88 (Writer/Director, dance film, 5mins)

1987 Spread the Word (Writer/Director, documentary short, 9mins)

1985 The Rainbow Serpent (Stills Photographer, documentary series, SBS TV)

1983 Guniwaya Ngigu (Assistant Editor/Production Manager, documentary, 64mins)

Endnotes

  1. Vikki Riley, “Short Circuit”, Cinema Papers, No.66, Nov.1987, p.19.
  2. Bruce Molloy, “Films About Aborigines” in Before The Interval, Australian Mythology & Feature Films 1939-1960, Published by the University of Queensland, 1990, p. 124.
  3. Lyndell Farleigh, “Challenging images of Aboriginal Women”, Tribune September 2, 1987, p.13.
  4. Karen Jennings, Aboriginality in Australia: Representations of Aboriginals in selected features and documentaries 1955-1986, Masters Thesis, Murdoch University, December 1988, p.145.
  5. C.D. Rowley, The Destruction of Aboriginal Society, Vol.1, Penguin, 1972 p.30 quoted in Anne Summers, Damned Whores and God’s Police, p.276.
  6. Karen Jennings, 1988, opcit., p.149.
  7. Lyndell Farleigh, 1987, opcit., p.13.
  8. Gael Newton, SHADES OF LIGHT, Photography and Australia 1839-1988, Collins & The Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1988, p.159.
  9. Shane McNeil, “RELATIVITY ROEG AND RADICAL FORMS, an interview with Tracey Moffatt”, Lip Sync, Media Resource Centre Newsletter, Adelaide, Aug-Sept.1991, p.2.
  10. Karen Jennings, 1988, opcit., p.146.
  11. Mathew Harding, “Black Women, Passion & Exploitation, Tribune, June 24, 1987, p.11.
  12. Ann Kaplan, “Aborigines, Film and Moffatt’s “Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy”: An Outsider’s Perspectives”, Bulletin of the Olive Pink Society, Research Centre for Women’s Studies, University of Adelaide, Vol.2, 1989, p.15.
  13. Lyndell Farleigh, 1987, opcit., p.13.
  14. Bruce Molloy, 1990, opcit., p. 134.
  15. Anthony Boyle, “Walkabout”, Film Literature Quarterly, Vol.7, No.1, 1979. p.71.

About The Author

Lisa French is Deputy Dean in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University. She co-authored the book Shining a Light: 50 Years of the Australian Film Institute (2009 & 2014), and was the co-writer/editor of the anthology Womenvision: Women and the Moving Image in Australia (2003).