The Sapphires is dense with racial themes; however, rather than be depressing like a tone piece such as The Rabbit-Proof Fence, it is a feel-good women can do anything flick.
First, at the beginning of the film, there is a clip of Muhammad Ali, an infamous African-American boxer who refused to serve in the Vietnam War as he pointed out the irony in killing minorities in their own country (which is far less powerful than the West) for his country, which treats his people poorly. In his case, though, he was already famous. On the flip side, in regards to the movie’s main characters who are Aborignal women from the Australian outback, they want to go to Vietnam to achieve success for themselves, and they don’t want the color of their skin to hold them back.
An interesting bias that I can’t help agreeing with is when Lovelace points out that soul music only works if it was sung by a black person. Ironically he demonstrates he is very decent at the soul, but because he is white, it is therefore “wrong.” He tells the girls to “sound black” when singing and embrace their cultural identity. Up until this point the girls have been sticking to country music to assimilate in a white town and Lovelace explains that that genre represents a different struggle that doesn’t match theirs which is why narratively and aesthetically soul is more appropraite for their style.
The character Kay is interesting because she is white, but she is Aboriginal. Most white Australians are going to have an Indigenous ancestor, and I think that’s important to acknowledge about yourself. In Kay’s case, she tries to distance herself from it at first even at the cost of rejecting her family, which goes to show how powerful societal racism can be, unfortunately. But she gets over it, and by the end, she is reconnecting with her family again.
What is even more interesting is that Gail kind of gets framed as a racist. When she and Cynthia are trying to hitch a ride at the start of the movie she interprets that the reason the driver did not pick them up was that they are black, in other words, the driver did not pick them up because he is white, rather than that they are strangers to the driver, Cynthia gives a more comedic reason. When Lovelace finds out Gail has a fellow Irish uncle and asks her about it, she says it is something they try to keep secret. This then accelerates in her interactions with Kay. Because of Kay’s skin color but also the context of their personal history, Gail uses terms against her that could be considered racist such as “gubba” and “coconut.” And her attitude gets called out by Lovelace, who outright calls her a racist. But even though she is framed as racist, it is only because she has grownup in a racist society, and it is this attitude she needs to reject, not Kay, who she accepts at the end of the film.
Kay and her love interest escape an attack and attempt to save a white soldier’s life who dies because he does not want her boyfriend, who is black to touch himself calling him something derogatory. The soldier, however, is reasonable to Kay, who is white, the irony being that the dying soldier does not know she is Aboriginal. The stupidity of racism is very defined in this scene as the soldier prioritized his racism over his own life, and it cost him heavily.
I think I need to rewatch this film again as I’m afraid that I am not even scratching the surface of its racial elements. The first time I watched this film, I noticed the elements surface level and thought it was a fun movie; the second time, however, has given me a lot more to think about. A third time I might discover new layers.