*”The Sapphires” is a story adapted from the original stage play by Wayne Blair, and written by Tony Briggs.
Directed by Wayne Blair, it tells a true story based on the lives of Briggs’ mother and aunts. It is a story that many in the United States can relate to, especially African Americans. Yes, there are many soulful moments in the film, the historical kinship cannot be ignored.
It starts off in 1968 in a small Aboriginal town in Australia during the Vietnam era and follows the lives of four women looking to rise above their humble circumstances. Chris O’Dowd plays a small town musician, borderline alcoholic and quick-witted charlatan named Dave Lovelace to comic effect, but “The Sapphires” is not ABC After School special material.
I was on hand for the New York City press junket were the stars of “The Sapphires,” with most major media outlets represented in their respective press suites. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the irony of being one of only three black or brown media members (as far as I could see) at a junket for a film that tells the story of four women of color triumphing over their own racial circumstances.
“The Sapphires” deals with race, love and forgiveness in a beautifully frank and well acted manner. The Sapphires are played by actress Deborah Mailman (Gail), Jessica Mauboy (Julie), Shari Sebbens (Kay), and Miranda Tapsell (Cynthia).
It takes place during a time when the Australian government still practiced a form of cultural eugenics, reducing the Aboriginal population by removing children with lighter skin tones to be raised by foster families who were white.
Though there is plenty of soulful singing contained within the film, the seriousness of the setting helps temper any preconceived assertions the viewer may initially have regarding the possible runaway levity caused by the humor contained within the early scenes.
“I think after ‘Bridesmaids’ I made the decision to change a little bit. I wanted to go and do an independent film that was a bit different and this movie came along, and that kind of made sense,” said O’Dowd when asked why he took the role of Lovelace.
“It is really fun doing the improv thing, but I find it very difficult because you’re so focused all the time and there’s no autopilot. You have to be very present. Otherwise, there’s no scene.”
Every culture has its own signature brand of comedy. Chris O’Dowd told reporters he learned of the Aboriginal brand of humor the hard way.
“Brutal honesty is what I’ve figured aboriginal humor to be. You can’t take yourself too seriously, or else you’ll get murdered for it. It’s quite nice. You have to be able to laugh at yourself. That’s all they have.”
O’Dowd, known in America for his role in such films as “Bridesmaids”, has been quite successful as a comic actor in his career. Chris told us he was looking for something a bit different when he read for “The Sapphires”.
“I don’t know if I think about it consciously, but I guess when I’m reading scripts now I look for more universal themes than things that are just a good job. It kind of takes the pressure off a little bit when you know that its got more wide ranging significance than what you’re personally bringing into it. I feel like this is an important film and that’s what I’m taking from it.”
Many African Americans are clamoring for greater inclusion in the filmmaking process in the United States, but are still light-years ahead of the native population in Australia in that regard. We asked the ladies of “The Sapphires” about how they were chosen for their roles.
“It was a long, long auditioning process. I think Shari and Maui (Jessica Mauboy) are already household names in Australia because of ‘Australian Idol’ and things. They’re like music, screen and stage royalty. But, the beautiful thing about that is, it was sort of an eight month auditioning process where we all had to earn our roles. So, it wasn’t handed to anyone. It wasn’t just given. We had to fight.” said Deborah, who plays Gail in the film.
“Once you find out about our chemistry and how well worked, and we’re all small town girls here basically, we got along rather quickly.” said Miranda.
Four leading ladies for a major motion picture? There’s no doubt the set would have been littered with cattiness and innuendo had the film been cast with women from any other ethnic group. It’s just the way it is. Deborah, who played Cynthia in the stage play, told reporters that nothing was going to get in the way of the ladies giving their all.
“We just cared about this project so much that we couldn’t let anything get in the way of it. We couldn’t get the success that we have if I was doing it anyway. The other thing, great writing. When each of us read this film we all felt like it was our story and not just one of our story. Obviously, people and things jump on the screen, but on paper we were all equal. To have four female leads is rare.”
“I received the script two years before we started filming. I just fell in love with it,” added Shari Sebbens, Kay in the film. “I fell in love with the script and I had no idea about these four women who traveled to Vietnam in 1968. As a black or aboriginal woman growing up in Australia I had no idea. It really surprised me, and there’s many, many more just like them. This is one that definitely stood out. So, we’re going to take it back to our community and the rest of Australia.”
“I played Cynthia in the stage play. Since 2005, what it did was provide four roles for indigenous actresses to step into. They’re great roles. Every night we had audiences dancing in the aisles and dancing out of their seats. It was fantastic. Audiences were doing this every night without fail,” said Deborah.
What’s in a name? African Americans have dealt with that question in the past, and continue to do so today. The native Australians are no different in that regard as well.
“It’s a very current conversation in our country. Aboriginal, native Australian. If you know who you are, you can just go by that. Aboriginal is not wrong,” said Miranda, Cynthia in the film.
She finished by speaking of the overall importance of the film for native Australians and their history.
“Because of all the dispossession in Australia, that has been portrayed in films quite a lot, A lot of the times, Aboriginal women are depicted as domestic violence victims, people who are coming out of jail or people who break the law or people who have problems with drugs or alcohol.”
“Because of our history we’re depicted as have difficulty living in a western world. But what’s so empowering about the ‘Sapphires’ is that these women were not willing to be victims of their circumstances. They wanted to be bigger and better than they were. It says ‘No, no! Our country can be better. We can be treated better.’ It was such an empowering thing for our nation to see because now it’s becoming a part of the Australian story. It’s planted its seed. Our people are now being talked about and the fact that we’re being acknowledged. We’re taking control of some of our storytelling. Because of that, we can now tell our stories better.”
“The Sapphires” opened in select theaters on Friday, March 22 and is getting positive reviews from across the media spectrum. It masterfully blends comedy and drama to tell a story the whole of humanity can relate to and enjoy.