In the late 1960s America was caught in the middle of a civil rights battle. But the injustice here wasn’t the only one taking place in the world. In Australia the native Aboriginal people were experiencing the same problems. In fact, until 1967 the Australian government classified Aborigines as “Flora and Fauna.”
1958. At a village gathering the people are being entertained by a quartet of young girls – their voices beautifully blended together as they sing a native tune. The girls smile at the true joy the music brings them.
1968. As the Civil Rights movement in America spills into the living rooms via television – clips of Martin Luther King and policeman with fire hoses – sisters Gail (Mailman) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) are preparing to head to town to participate in a local talent contest. Youngest sister Julie (Mauboy) wants to go but is told no. Promoting the contest is Dave (O’Dowd), an Irishman with a taste for drink. As the contest begins Dave serves as the piano accompanist. He plays along listly, rolling his eyes as one terrible act after another takes the stage. Enter Gail and Cynthia, who have opted to perform a Merle Haggard ditty. In mid-song Julie walks in, takes her place on stage and they bring the house down. Or at least they should have. Because of the racial prejudice prevalent the crowd remains silent and the girls lose. Dave is outraged. However he recognizes talent when he sees it and offers to manage the girls on the condition they do one kind of music. “90% of all recorded music is shite,” he tells them. “The other 10% is soul!”
Inspired by a true story, “The Sapphires” is that rare film that is not only entertaining but conveys a message: that of the need for equality. Things begin to go well for the girls, who are joined by their cousin Kay (Sharri Sebbens). They embark on a military sponsored tour of Vietnam, where their shows are met with raucous applause. But as the group’s popularity grows tensions grow between the girls. Because she was light skinned Kay was taken away from her family as a very young girl, where she was sent to school to learn how to be “white.” The sisters resent her for this, even though it wasn’t of her doing. When Kay begins seeing a black soldier she is berated for assuming that dating someone that is black would once again make her “black.” It’s not intended to, as all Kay wants is to be back with her family. The more popular the group, called The Sapphires, gets the more turmoil it faces.
Beautifully acted with a true star-making performance by O’Dowd (probably best known as the policeman that dated Kristin Wiig in “Bridesmaids”), “The Sapphires” is one of those small films that a critic loves to discover. All four leading ladies shine, with Mauboy hitting all the right notes (both acting wise and musically) as the “leader” of the group. As the wise and level headed Gail, Mailman must act not for what’s best for her but for the group. Tapsell and Sebbens also acquit themselves well. The screenplay, which was co-written by the Julie-character’s real life son, Tony Briggs, is a mixture of drama and humor, interrupted occasionally by the musical numbers. Director Blair crafts the story well, never letting the film get too serious or silly.
Towards the end of the film the villagers are shocked when they see Robert Kennedy address a crowd, informing them that Martin Luther King had been shot. Sadly, two months later, RFK would suffer the same fate. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that a film dealing with Civil Rights is being released almost 45 years to the day that Dr. King was shot. Hopefully his message, and the ones in this film, will never be ignored.