Black and White (2002
Director: Craig Haliff.
Starring: Robert Carlyle (David O'Sullivan), Charles Dance (Roderic Chamberlain), Kerry Fox (Helen Devaney), David Ngoombujarra (Young Max Stuart), Max Stuart (Old Max Stuart), Colin Friels (Father Tom Dixon), Ben Mendelsohn (Rupert Murdoch), Billie Brown (Thomas Playford), John Gregg (Rohan Rivett), Roy Billing (Det-Sgt Turner), Garry Waddell (Const. Jones), Patrick Duggin (Policeman #1), Andrew Martin (Policeman #2), Frank Gallacher (Justice Reed), Rhys McConnochie (Justice Abbott), Vincent Ball (Chief Justice Napier), Peter Whitford (Justice Windeyer), Donald McDonald (Lord Tucker), Peter Carroll (Viscount Simonds), Heather Mitchell (Roma Chamberlain), Penne Hackforth-Jones (Mrs. Aston), Petru Gheorghiu (Dr. Strehlow).
police virtually frame an aboriginal man leading to great controversy over the role of race in Australia
Spoiler warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
Ceduna Beach, South Australia, Saturday, December 20, 1958. The police get some men from the cinema to search for a young girl on or around the beach. It is not long before they find the body of the 9 year old girl. She was raped and killed. Relatively quickly the police grab a suspect, an aboriginal named Max Stuart. He is just coming out of a field pulling his pants up after urinating when the police shout to get him. They say he is hiding. Max replies: "I'm not hiding." They bring Max to the police station. They throw some sand on the ground, make Max walk barefoot in it and ask two aboriginal native trackers if those are the footprints they saw on the beach. The two men look at the footprints from three feet away and say yes those are the footsteps. "That's him!"
Adelaide, S. Australia, Wednesday, December 24, 1958. Two law partners, David O'Sullivan and Helen Devaney, receive a new case -- the case of a black fellow accused of raping and killing a 9 year old white girl. (The lawyer's names were drawn from a lottery. They will not be paid for their services.) O'Sullivan is soon driving to Ceduna, the last town before the Western Australia border.
O'Sullivan goes to the jail where Stuart is kept. To express his disapproval, a white man spits on the ground as the lawyer passes. O'Sullivan learns from Stuart that he can neither read or write. The police maintain that the murder happened between 6 p.m. and 12 a.m. Stuart says he was drinking along the beach from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and from 9 p.m. to 12 a.m. he was locked up because of his public intoxication. O'Sullivan things Stuart has a couple of good alibis.
Preliminary Hearing, January 21, 1959. The coroner gets on the stand and changes her testimony. She now says that the murder happened earlier than previously stated. She redid the autopsy and discovered that the murder happened between 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. This really angers O'Sullivan and he asks her if she had learned that the police were saying the murder happened earlier before she redid the exam. She admits that she knew, but it had nothing to do with her decision to redo the autopsy. O'Sullivan scoffs at her and asks her if it was not incompetent of her not to have noticed the first time what she now found from the second examination of the body. The judge admonishes the lawyer for his accusations. O'Sullivan protests that since she changed the times on him, he has had no time to prepare. The judge simply says: "If this hearing goes to trial, you'll have the time."
O'Sullivan walks along the beach near the murder scene. He notices that his footprints are rather faint on the beach. And the waves wash many of them away.
O'Sullivan asks for a break-out of times for the activities Stuart participated in on the fateful day. He took a taxi ride at 1 p.m. to the Thevenard Hotel to have some drinks. Why didn't he go to the nearby Ceduna Hotel? Because no blacks allowed. He then walked back to where he worked at the funfair (carnival). O'Sullivan asks if he walked by the beach area where the body was found. He did, but he did not notice anything special. Stuart was at the funfair by the time the carnival started: 2 p.m.
Now the crucial question is why did Stuart sign the confession. Stuart says he does not know. He's a half-caste. They can't find the owners of the funfair, the Geisemans have disappeared. The funfair goes all around to the very small towns in Australia and they are extremely difficult to find. Helen becomes exasperated and says: "We have no defense!"
Supreme Court of South Australia, Monday, April 20, 1959. In the case O'Sullivan points out that the aborigine trackers were told that Stuart was the guilty man before they were asked if they could identify his footprints in sand. Then the defense lawyer really gets everyone mad at him when he claims that the police beat the confession out of Stuart. The case is adjourned until 9 a.m. the next day.
O'Sullivan speaks with Stuart again. Some of the things the police are accused of is choking the black man, cutting him with a razor blade, cutting some of his hair from his head and then threatening to skin him alive with the razor blade. One of the policemen hit Stuart very hard in the stomach. He was also hit with a piece of rubber hose.
Helen Devaney is very negative about the case. She tells her partner that nobody is going to believe Stuart and his complaints about police brutality. After all, in this town cops are only second to God. And the judge is the first. Nobody cares about an aboriginal. O'Sullivan retorts with: "But we do." The Irish-Australian says he won't plead guilty because Stuart would hang. The worry is that he will alienate the jury or get themselves run out of town.
The next morning the prosecutor and the judge try to pressure O'Sullvan to accept Stuart's guilt for a lesser plea. The defense lawyer is not interested. In cross-examining the police O'Sullivan catches them in a contradiction in their sworn testimony. The police admitted that they used a razor blade to cut some hair out of Stuart's head, but O'Sullivan points out that neither the hair or the razor blade were mentioned in their written report. The test analysis of the hair was inconclusive. Max gets on the stand, but the judge refuses to let someone read the police testimony to the illiterate aborigine. The jury is all white, all male. The judge is biased. He refers to the defense attorney's line of approach to be "rubbish, utter rubbish". The verdict, of course, was guilty.
Max says that he has some white blood in him and that neither side, black or white, like him. That's why he became a boxer. He could get away and travel, which he loves to do. He says he never lost a fight. And he is very happy that he got a chance to see the sea. He had to quit boxing because his boozing became too much of a problem. Stuart tells O'Sullivan that some bloke is awful lucky, namely the real killer. The lawyer is going to appeal the case, but his partner stands up against him. She argues that it stops here. O'Sullivan doesn't want to hear that.
A former policeman and a sometimes client of the law partners comes into their office to ask that they take his ex-wife to court to get his alimony payments halved. But O'Sullivan is more interested in finding out what the policeman knows about the personalities and performances of the six police officers present at the Stuart interrogation. The man, however, is not interested in being a "fink".
One of the police guards asks Stuart what he would like for his last meal. He also introduces Father Tom Dixon to Max. After his visit with Max, Father Dixon talks with his defense lawyers. He tells them that he lived and worked among the aborigines for quite a few years. ad there is no way that Max could have made the confession. The English in it is too perfect. The aborigines always mix up their English and their native language and twist it around dp that it comes out a real pea soup. The words in that confession are not those of Stuart. Fortunately, the expert on aborigine language is at the University of Adelaide. They go to see Dr. Strehlow who sums up his impression of the confession: "The confession is shit."
Stuart admits something news. When he went to the hotel on the fateful day he paid an aborigine worker there four pounds for sex with her. He says he didn't admit this before because he was ashamed to say it.
The time nears for Stuart's execution. And Justice Reed is away for the weekend. As Father Dixon accompanies Stuart, he helps the condemned man stand and walk as Stuart's legs give out from under him. Almost at the last minute, the sentence is stayed.
The prosecutor, Roderic Chamberlain, is disgusted that O'Sullivan appealed the court's decision. He gets in trouble with his wife. She tells him that she heard that he would be named the next chief justice of the supreme court. She scolds him for not telling her the key things happening in his life.
The Appeal. High Court of Australia, Melbourne. Tuesday, June 19, 1959. One of the justices says that the case has caused him some anxiety. The prosecutor says that the defense is trying to retry the case, bringing up new evidence. The judge agrees and says that they cannot retry the case. O'Sullivan loses the appeal.
Things look dark indeed for Stuart. But then in comes the young, but very wealthy newspaperman Rupert Murdoch. He owns the News. He introduces his editor, Rohan Rivett, to the two defense lawyers. Murdoch is very sympathetic to Stuart's case and wants to give it a great deal of publicity. O'Sullivan tells them: "The judicial system in this country's not only antiquated, it's against the poor and the people who can't defend themselves." Murdoch says they will just have to drag Adelaide into the 20th century. (Helen is still very much the doubter.)
The case will now go to the Privy Council. Stuart's lawyers, however, need some money for the appeal. Helen wonders how they are going to get any funds when the "people hate us in this town." O'Sullivan replies: "Helen, if we don't do this, who will?"
Murdoch gives the case a lot of attention on the front page, while the conservative Advertiser just gives only a little blurb on page five.
Parliament House, Adelaide. Monday, July 6, 1959. Premier Thomas Playford calls in prosecutor Chamberlain to talk to him. He asks: "What's going on, Roderic?" They've got the federal government interfering in state politics for the first time since he became the Premier. The leader of the opposition is calling for a stay of execution.
Father Dixon gets scolded by his bishop. He wants Dixon to drop the case completely. But Dixon says he has to look for the funfair. The bishop says: "No. I can't let you go." The Father gets down on his knees before the bishop and replies: "I won't get up until you give me permission to go."
Dave and Helen are on a plane. He asks her why she drinks so much. She says that it makes her feel good and gives her confidence. The stewardess brings them free drinks. Suspicious, O'Sullivan investigates the passengers riding in first class. He find prosecutor Chamberlain and scolds him for his action.
Cairns Airport, Queensland, Sunday, July 28, 1959. Dixon and two other men are chasing the funfair. The funfair just left, but they are able to follow after them and catch them.
The Privy Council, London, England, Tuesday, July 28, 1959. The judges are awful. They are so haughty in their demeanor that their impartiality would be questioned if there were real justice. O'Sullivan has not been trained to speak before the court and the court, instead of being understanding, becomes insulting. One of the great quotes from the meeting: "If you undermine the police, you undermine justice." This was a typical feeling in many countries before the start of the many civil rights movements around the world. The judges are so nasty that they tell the prosecutor: "No need for Mr. Chamberlain to speak." Just after they lose the argument in the case, Dave and Helen get the news that they have found the funfair owner.
O'Sullivan feels guilty about the outcome. He says he did not have the experience for the case. He is a bit buoyed when he receives the affidavit which says that Max was at work at funfair during the critical hours. Murdoch refers to the justices of the Privy Council as "pompous asses". There's a problem, however. Max refuses to sign the appeal. He says seven times they were going to hang him and he was only saved at the last minute each time. He has had enough. Helen and Father Dixon work on him to cheer him up and get him to sign. (The Father warns Helen that the opposition has found out something about his personal live and may use it against them.)
O'Sullivan pays a visit to the hostile Mr. Karskens, now working at a garbage dump. He says he won't tell the lawyer anything about the six policemen. O'Sullivan reminds him that it was police department that forced him out and into retirement, that he does not owe them any loyalty.
Helen goes to the woman in the Father's life. The woman offers to get out of town for awhile and Helen does not really object.
Playford calls Chamberlain in to see him again. He says that in 21 years of service at the post he has never had such opposition. Chamberlain says that they are going to charge Murdoch and his News with seditious libel.
At home, Chamberlain is having a rough time. Not only his wife, but his friends, are upset on behalf of Max Stuart. They even confront Chamberlain about the case. He becomes infuriated and decides to tell them the entire truth of the case. His wife forbids him to do this, but he ignores her. He starts on a rant and then goes into exquisite detail on the horrors of the physical crime committed against the girl -- something which is often not allowed in court because it can be too prejudicial; the jury will want to name any defendant guilty in such a horrible case. He grosses out his company, but whether he convinced them to be or not to be on his side is another question.
Royal Commission, Adelaide, August 10, 1959. Mr. Geiseman of funfair testifies. The judge is terribly prejudiced in the case. He says that they can dismiss the man's testimony because he is a carny person and therefore unreliable. The audience, however, is on the side of the defendant and gasp at some of the judge's unfair decisions. Prosecutor Chamberlain stands up to defend the police and the institutions of government.
In the hearing in the case of seditious libel, Murdoch keeps taking what in the USA is referred to as the Fifth Amendment. I refuse to testify on the grounds that it might incriminate me.
One of the high justices, Justice Abbott, in the upper class private club puts pressure on Chamberlain not to put O'Sullivan on the stand in the case before the Royal Commission. He is afraid the testimony will undermine lawyers and police everywhere in Australia. Lawyesr will start to be accused of committing errors all over the place. After speaking with Chamberlain, the justice speaks with O'Sullivan. He tells the defense lawyer that he wants him to plead guilty to inefficiency. He will only get a rap over the knuckles for this. Then he can use the case to argue that in the future all lawyers selected to defend the poor will be paid by the government. O'Sullivan is not interested in the justice's desires.
Playford calls in Chamberlain. He has come to a decision. The Parliament has become full of rabid rhetoric as never before and he is sick of it. He himself is now receiving death threats. He drops a bomb on Chamberlain: "We're not going to execute that black man." They are going to get rid of the death penalty. Max Stuart will not hang.
At home, Chamberlain's wife eats alone, refusing to sit at the dinner table with her husband.
At the court, the prosecutor drops a bomb. "You will not be needed Mr. O'Sullivan" he says. The death sentence has been commuted.. The defense team and the court audience are very happy. Chamberlain, as is his practice, insults O'Sullivan as he leaves the court. But O'Sullivan this time back-talks and says that the prosecutor just doesn't get it. He doesn't understand what has just happened to him and his ilk. He tells the prosecutor that he was just the messenger boy of the conservative government.
Dave and Helen won the case at the expense of losing their law business. They tell Stuart of the results of the court case. He will not be killed, but he will serve some time in prison. Stuart listens to them and then says: "I sit and wait for justice to be done."
The Royal Commission did not overturn the guilty verdict.
Max Stuart spent 14 years in prison for the crime of raping and murdering Mary Hattam.
David O'Sullivan moved to Victoria in 1960 as there was no legal future for him in Adelaide. He died five years later in a car accident.
Helen Devaney also left South Australia and was admitted into practice in Victoria.
Roderic Chamberlain never became Chief Justice but he did get his knighthood.
Tom Dixon left the ministry and married soon after.
Rupert Murdoch went on to own one of the largest newspaper and communications empires in the world, the News Corporation.
Very good movie. My wife and I greatly enjoyed it. The situation in Australia was pretty similar to the one in the USA The movie could have been set in the apartheid south of the USA. Maybe not quite that bad, but bad enough. My wife thought it was sad. Yes, in a way. The situation was sad. But the message is one of hope, that righteousness triumphs in the ultimate end even though it may take a very long time and a great deal of pain. Robert Carlyle as defense lawyer David O'Sullivan was great. (He usually plays the part of the very, very angry young man, so I was glad to see him in something different.)
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
Return To Main Page
Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)