Written and directed by Steve Thomas
A Flying Carpet Films production
ABC TV, Sunday, April 9, 8.30pm
Reviewed by Norm Dixon
This intriguing documentary reveals the story of Harold Blair, one of Australia's greatest opera singers and a fighter against injustice.
Born in Queensland's notoriously brutal Cherbourg Aboriginal reserve after his 14-year-old mother was raped by her stepfather, Blair became enchanted with the voice of Nelson Eddy and would regularly sneak into the Ipswich picture show to hear his idol.
In 1945, Blair became the first Aboriginal Australian to sing on national radio. As it aired, activist Robert Bropho recounts, tumult broke out through the cellblocks of Fremantle jail as Aboriginal inmates celebrated.
Queensland communist and union leader Harry Breen organised a committee to fund Blair's further training at the Melba Conservatorium in Melbourne. He was adopted by well-meaning philanthropist John Lloyd.
At a time when, according to history professor Bruce Miller, only "anthropologists, missionaries and communists" were interested in the fate of Aboriginal people, the dominant policy was to assimilate this "dwindling race".
The film melds together archival newsreel footage, newspaper cuttings and interviews with family and friends to give a picture of the crudely racist and patronising attitudes of the period. Journalists, unable to come to terms with Blair's remarkable voice, invented an Italian father for him. His marriage to a white woman provoked wonder and outrage.
In 1950, Blair studied in Harlem under the noted African-American singer Todd Duncan. While there, he discovered a vibrant black intellectual and cultural world that, compared to the terrible reserve system back home, made him feel "Harlem was heaven". He realised that there was no natural law that the "dark races must be subservient".
On his return, at the height of his popularity, Blair became increasingly outspoken about the treatment of Aboriginal people. He said that "the condition of my people was a constant reproach to me. I got sick of being feted at banquets and living in hotels while they were forced to live on hand-outs and could never afford to hear me sing."
He was shunned by the ABC, the death knell for a tenor's career in those days. Unable to sing professionally, he turned to managing a petrol station, then became one of Victoria's few qualified secondary teachers. Blair died in 1976.
Comparisons with Paul Robeson are inevitable, but how accurate such an analogy is cannot be properly gauged. Here the documentary falls down badly. We are treated to a thorough account of his career and family life, but the film makers skirt around Blair's politics. We are permitted to hear his ideas only in broad brushstrokes; there is footage of Blair on a picket line, but no specific information on his activities. That he worked closely with the Communist Party is merely hinted at.
By today's standards, many of Blair's later political initiatives were ill considered. He was clearly uncomfortable with the new mood of militancy that focused on the Aboriginal tent embassy in 1972. But as daughter Nerida Blair sums up in the film, "Every generation of indigenous people develops its own response to the colonisers. Harold was one of his generation who came forward and bridged the gap between 'protection' and self-determination."