Futile but not Meaningless: Resistance in ‘The Nightingale’

the-nightingale-australian-movie-poster

The Nightingale was written, directed and co-produced by Jennifer Kent (Source: Cinematerial).

Thanks to Hull Independent Cinema I recently got to see The Nightingale, the controversial Australian film written, directed, and co-produced by Jennifer Kent. Whilst it is definitely not right to say I enjoyed the experience, it is a very well-made and thought-provoking film that has led me to reflect on the nature of resistance against a much more powerful force. Against something as dominant at the British Empire, acts of resistance can often seem futile, but The Nightingale explores how these acts are still meaningful.

Set in 1825 in the British penal colony of van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), the film is driven by the story of Clare Carroll, played by Aisling Franciosi, an Irish convict who sets out for revenge after suffering horrific physical and sexual violence at the hands of British Army Lieutenant Hawkins (played by Sam Claflin) and his men. She recruits an Aboriginal man named “Billy” Mangana (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her track the British soldiers as they travel through the bush. At first Clare is suspicious of Mangana and is aggressive and racist towards him, but as the story progresses they come to realise that they have both suffered at the hands of the British, both in terms of themselves as individuals and the societies and cultures which they come from. A mutual respect and affection develops from this shared trauma.

The-Nightingale-film-4-750x476

Baykali Ganambarr plays “Billy” Mangana, an Aboriginal man who has suffered at the hands of the British but makes a living acting as a guide for settlers and soldiers who do not know how to survive or navigate in the bush (Source: The Nightingale, 2018).

The Nightingale has been criticised for its graphic depictions of physical and sexual violence. The defense for this is it is an accurate depiction of how indigenous Australians and convicts were treated, and the film was made in collaboration with Tasmanian Aboriginal elders. The violence is shocking, and very difficult to watch, but I have no doubt that this kind of thing went on and I think it is important that the full horrors of British colonial rule in Australia and around the world are acknowledged. The acts of violence which the film depicts powerfully conveys a sense of how cheap indigenous and convict life was to the British army and most white settlers. Clare and Mangana do receive one or two acts of kindness, but even this is difficult for Mangana as he is forced to accept charity from settlers on land that by rights belongs to his people.

In the film, language is a form of resistance. Clare is known to the British soldiers as the Nightingale because of her beautiful singing voice, and on their journey both Clare and Mangana sing in their respective native languages, gaelic and palawa kani. The Irish and Aborigines both suffered systematic brutality that could arguably be classified as genocide at the hands of the English; both cultures and societies have been pushed to the very edge of existence. In these circumstances celebrating native culture becomes a powerful act of defiance. Even today, it is quite unusual to see native languages like this included in films, so it can arguably be classed as an act of resistance by the filmmakers as well as the characters.

The Nightingale Clare and Mangana

Clare and Mangana have had traumatic lives, and they also go through some awful things during the course of the film, but they seem to find some comfort in their respective native languages (Photo: The Nightingale, 2018).

The thing that struck me most about Clare and Mangana’s acts of resistance during The Nightingale is their futility. I left the theatre feeling desperately sad that there was no way either character would be able to achieve happiness, or even have a ‘normal’ life after the events of the film. Both characters had put up with a significant amount of injustice and abuse because to do anything about it would only make their lives worse. As the film progressed, both were subjected to experiences that made them abandon that attempt at self preservation. Another aboriginal man known as Charlie, the guide employed by Hawkins and his men, also reaches a similar breaking point and stands up to his oppressors. On one level, these acts of resistance are futile as well as self-destructive; they mean little in the face of the British imperial system. On another level, however, their actions are incredibly meaningful; Clare and Mangana both seem to find some kind of peace by the very end of the film. Clare, Mangana, and Charlie’s resistance may have been futile in the grand scheme of things, but it was absolutely necessary to them. They were under no illusions that their actions would overthrow British rule, and they did not seem to expect to survive their revenge mission, but they did it anyway. Resistance is about rejecting the way things are, but it isn’t always about trying to change them; it is often futile, but it is never meaningless.

The Nightingale is not a pleasant watch, and I wouldn’t recommend you sit down to watch it with a bowl of popcorn on a Saturday night. But it is a well-made and powerful story that I think needed to be told, and you should see it if you get the chance.

 

Book Review: American Uprising- The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt

American Uprising Front cover straight

American Uprising by Daniel Rasmussen.

Daniel Rasmussen. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt. New York: Harper Collins, 2011. RRP $15.99 paperback.

Earlier this year, I visited New Orleans. It is a wonderful city, but it’s history of race relations is troubled, to put it mildly. An area called the German Coast sits just a few miles north-west of the city, on the banks of the Mississippi River. In the nineteenth century, it was some of the richest and most fertile agricultural land in America. The most common crop was sugar, and the owners of the plantations along the river grew incredibly rich from it. But it was a system built on slavery. By 1810, 75% of the local population were slaves. Faced with a daily assault of cruel, dehumanising, and violent treatment, it is no surprise that slaves found subtle ways to resist the system. Occasionally, this resistance took the form of armed rebellion. In January 1811, between 200 and 500 enslaved men undertook an armed uprising on the German Coast. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt tells the story of this revolt, and makes a convincing argument for its significance in the development of the modern United States of America.

This is a story about slave revolutionaries: their lives, their politics, and their fight to the death against the planters and their militia. Above all, this is a story about America: who we are, where we came from, and how our ideals have at times been twisted and cast aside for the sake of greed and power.

Rasmussen, 2011, p. 3

As author Daniel Rasmussen himself argues, the German Coast Uprising has received limited attention from historians over the years. In addition, because the participants were slaves, archival documents relating to the uprising are scarce–accounts from the perspective of the slaves themselves are almost non-existent. Even the names of most of the participants are unknown to us. As a result, Rasmussen has to be creative in the way that he reconstructs the story of the revolt. For example, he uses the accounts of other enslaved people, such as Olaudah Equiano and Solomon Northup (who’s story of slavery formed the basis for the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave), to give the reader an idea of what life would have been like for the slaves who participated in the revolt.

American Uprising does a good job of  telling the story of the revolt in an engaging and accessible way. But Rasmussen also goes beyond this narrative, to explore how the uprising was represented and interpreted, both immediately afterwards, and later by historians. The uprising was quickly depoliticised by those in authority, its participants portrayed as animalistic and violent criminals in a narrative that is still frequently used in relation to riots and other violent protests.

As the map at the beginning of the book demonstrates, the United States of America was still very much a work-in-progress in 1811; Louisiana had only been part of the Union since 1803, and it didn’t obtain statehood until 1812. Rasmussen explains how the uprising played an important role in justifying the necessity of statehood for Louisiana, and helped pave the way for further American expansionism over the next few decades. This is one of the key points in Rasmussen’s argument that the uprising deserves much more attention than it currently gets.

I bought American Uprising whilst I was in Louisiana in order to learn more about the state’s history of dissent. I got much more than that; the book explores the significance of the uprising far beyond the local area, putting it in the context of the development of a nation. American Uprising is well-written and enjoyable, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of protest, slavery, race relations, or imperial expansionism.