After the roaring success of Mystery Road, ABC is again bound for glory by putting Indigenous issues into a searing 6 part drama with a knockout cast.
Black B*tch Total Control wraps its narrative around all kinds of contemporary and social concerns including deaths in custody, land rights, Indigenous poverty and women in politics (including low representation in conservative parties). While it may well tackle ‘worthy’ topics it is driven by powerhouse performances.
When Alex Iriving (Deborah Mailman) makes a heroic move during a shooting in Winton, in central Queensland, eyewitness video goes viral. PM Rachel Anderson (Rachel Griffiths) seizes on her popularity by hoping to parachute her into a Senate seat as a tactical move ahead of a knife-edge Federal Election.
But Alex is no push-over. Government staffer and messenger Jonathan (Harry Richardson) is given a blunt refusal on the offer, prompting the PM to fly in and seal the deal by appealing to her local issues: indigenous health, education, living standards.
“How are you going to achieve that if you refuse to sit at the table?” asks the PM.
While her mother (Trisha Morton-Thomas) is proud of her decision to represent their mob in Canberra, her agitator brother (Rob Collins) warns “They just want a pet Aborigine. Is that who you are?”
Alex soon finds herself in the crossfire that is party politics with Jonathan, now as her advisor, warning her against offending anybody with her maiden speech if she wants to stick around long enough to effect change. You can very nearly see Alex’s head and heart caught in a tug of war over a means to an end.
Meanwhile a subplot surrounds an Indigenous teenage death in custody, with a young escapee (Shantae Barnes-Cowan) clinging to incriminating video footage on her phone and a desire to expose it to Alex. It’s the kind of footage that would play badly for the PM ahead of an election.
Elsewhere a troublemaker minister (Anthony Hayes) is white-anting his own leader, whose own father (Tony Barry) is battling dementia. In supporting roles are William McInnes as Opposition Leader, Celia Ireland as Alex’s office manager and Aaron Pedersen as a Winton local pivotal to her cause.
The series explores all kinds of moral dilemmas for a newly-installed Senator and Alex finds herself torn between representing her mob, compromising at every turn and becoming a pawn in party politics. Issues of skin colour and gender are front and centre, all personified by Mailman.
“They’re calling you a sellout. The nerve of them calling you a coconut,” – mother (Trisha Morton-Thomas).
She is prone to lashing out and getting barefoot in TV interviews, allowing Deborah Mailman to rip through some of the scenes at category one, whilst still showing vulnerability behind closed doors. Episode 2 makes a nice comment that the politics of negotiating with Aboriginal elders is far more complex than anything Canberra has to offer.
Rachel Griffiths, who co-created the Blackfella Films series, adopts a less-sympathetic role, but one that is crucial to the drama’s big picture messaging. I was genuinely surprised her akubra-wearing leader was right -not left- wing.
Director Rachel Perkins hangs much of the drama, penned by Stuart Page, around the ample talents of Mailman, but she also contrasts the locations of Canberra hallways with the wide streets and big sky of Winton. Parliament House is used for all except Senate sessions, filmed in Old Parliament House.
While political dramas are often focussed on biographies, our penchant for leader overthrows suggests there is much more drama to be mined. Total Control cleverly sets up its house of cards with a uniquely Australian perspective before it all comes tumbling down. Don’t miss it.
Total Control airs 8:30pm Sunday on ABC.