History Bites Back, a satirical documentary on structural racism in Australia, aired on SBS Viceland last night as part of NAIDOC week. Presented by Trisha Morton-Thomas (8MMM Aboriginal Radio) and co-written by her and Craig Anderson (Sando, Double The Fist), History Bites Back features a cast of indigenous comic actors led by Black Comedy alumni Steven Oliver and Elaine Crombie, who reminded us, in fairly stark terms, of the multiplicity of ways in which non-indigenous Australians have made life near impossible for indigenous people over the past 200 or so years.
And if this doesn’t sound like a particularly hilarious program, then, no, it isn’t much of the time. Mostly, this is a deadly serious documentary, with some occasional, dark in tone, comic re-enactments of some of the historical moments discussed.
A section on British bomb testing in the outback in the 1950s shows how entire groups of indigenous people were blinded and killed by the nuclear fall-out or forced off their land and into slavery, but also a sequence where Steven Oliver tries to outrun the expanding mushroom cloud of one of the bombs. Oliver is great at visual comedy, and the sight of him running away as fast as he can is funny, but his character doesn’t beat the nuke, so there’s no happy ending here.
There also aren’t many laughs to had from some of the (sadly genuine) social media comments which Morton-Thomas reads out to illustrate the scale of how fucked white/indigenous relations actually are. All the usual tropes about indigenous people being lazy bludgers (and much, much worse) are presented – this is no holds barred – but so is the response from Morton-Thomas and company. If you’re one of those white people who assumed that indigenous Australians aren’t routinely denied the basic rights and privileges of Australian citizenship like passports and welfare, then you may need a lie down after watching this. The scale of the problems and the lack of interest in addressing by our political establishment is truly shocking.
History Bites Back is the kind of programme that more people should see. And the histories it discusses should be taught in schools. If you’re a city-dwelling white person whose sum total of education about indigenous Australia was a few Dreamtime stories and a brief look at the 1967 referendum, then this is a real eye-opener. And shows how far we as a society have to go.