Cleverman: Political television at its best

Cleverman has been touted as a game changer for Australian television even before it has aired. It’s easy to see why. With its 80% Indigenous cast, high quality production values and clear analogy to current political issues, nothing quite like it has ever been created on these shores.

The setting is somewhere in the near future, six months after the super-strong ‘hairypeople’ have outed themselves to mainstream Australia. Sensing an opportunity to distract the population, the government has declared them ‘subhuman’ and too dangerous to live amongst the rest of the population. Police have corralled them into The Zone, a deliberately under-resourced ghetto. In an expert game of divide and rule, the government has also branded Aboriginal people treacherous for keeping the existence of the ‘hairypeople’ a secret for so long. Many Aboriginal people now choose to live in The Zone. Vicious state repression and intimidation is directed at residents of The Zone.

In this volatile situation two Aboriginal brothers, Koen and Waruu, are chasing very different destinies. The younger Koen has renounced his community, embraced hedonism and lives in mainstream society. Meanwhile Waruu has become the political spokesperson of The Zone. He is struggling to maintain a delicate peace between its hairy and non-hairy occupants and appealing to the humanity of people outside The Zone, all while trying to keep the authorities at bay.

One of these brothers will become the predestined ‘Cleverman’, a mysterious figure who’ll determine everyone’s fate.

Creator Ryan Griffen set out to blend 60,000 years of Aboriginal culture with contemporary superhero stories. He says the key audience he had in mind was his young son. The result is a genre-bending trip through a nightmarish future that is at once both familiar and fantastical.

Moments of otherworldly horror will dispel any misconception of Dreaming stories as nice, quaint folktales. The fight scenes are stomach-churning and as well choreographed as any Hollywood blockbuster. Sickening scenes of police brutality will turn everyone watching into militant #hairylivesmatter activists!

The links between the events in Cleverman and the real-life situation facing Aboriginal people, refugees and others minorities in Australia today are obvious. Griffen has said the show is an exploration of different kinds of oppression. In a recent interview he explained that “the main reason we picked our hairymen as ‘the other’ was so the audience could pick who ‘the other’ is. This is not just a black and white story”.

Cleverman goes further than other recent dystopian stories in using fantasy to expose the harsh realities of contemporary Australian capitalism. In this brave not-so-new world there is a lot of money to be made. Whole industries have sprung up to take advantage of the oppression of hairypeople. Media moguls vie for exclusive rights to horrific events, profit-chasing vultures from a range of shady industries are always circling, and even our hero is cashing in on the misery. There are clear parallels with the obscene amount of money made from refugee detention or the clearing of Aboriginal communities from mineral rich land in Australia today.

But the show never becomes patronising or preachy. Every character is deeply flawed, and none really seem to have the makings of a ‘hero’ as we know them. These are ordinary people in a difficult situation that is getting worse, coming to the realisation that the choices they make will shape the future.

The show’s timing is ideal, coming after a wave of struggle around the country. In recent years we have seen hundreds of thousands of people mobilise against the forced closures of remote Aboriginal communities and the brutal treatment of refugees in offshore detention. The political debates within The Zone will resonate with participants and supporters of these real-life struggles. Waruu’s insistence that an alliance with outsiders is possible, and that the Zone’s inhabitants must always present as respectable and peaceful, has begun to grate on his allies. Even his most steadfast supporters are starting to think more confrontational tactics might be more effective. Just as in real life movements, how these political debates play out will determine the success of the hairypeople’s struggle.

Cleverman is a show that reflects the growing politicisation of people in Australia and around the world. The show is being released simultaneously in the US, suggesting that the underlying themes of oppression and resistance can speak to many different communities beyond our shores. Much of this audience is going to be exposed to things they’ve never seen or heard before – including Aboriginal languages and ancient stories – alongside more familiar dystopian concepts.

Cleverman is an extremely enjoyable, hectic ride. After watching two episodes I am prepared to say it is the best TV show ever made in Australia. Hopefully as well as stirring the deepest, darkest fears of audiences it also encourages a fierce mainstream debate on racism, Aboriginal struggle, refugee rights and police brutality. Cleverman has something important to say about the world we live in and the type of future society that we need to start fighting for.

Reviewed by Chris Dite

Cleverman airs on ABC Thursday, June 2 at 9:30pm

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