Inperson, Aunty Marlene Cummins does not come across like you’d expect for a woman whose documentary story is entitledBlack Panther Woman.
Given the violent history associated with the Black Panther movement and its Australian arm – fuelled in part by political propaganda that sought to discredit them, but also the actual crime and violence initiated by their members –I was expecting somebody intense, focused and cold. Instead, Aunty Marlene seems just that – your concerned aunt, somebody insightful and warm, instantly likeable.
Throughout our conversation I am stuck again and again by her bravery and compassion, but also her great sadness. At times funny and endearing, there is still profound grief and frustration that sits just below the surface. Given the truths this documentary finally shares, it is little wonder.
After apologising for the smell of her recently flooded apartment – though I can’t smell a thing – we sit on well-worn chairs in a room fit to bursting with CDs, artwork, photographs and a framed tour poster; Marlene Cummins just so happens to also be Australia’s foremost indigenous blues musician.
“I never got into music for the sake of making money, though I get that it’s a business that a lot of people go in for,” she says. “I was never interested in the money, as such, but you know, if some happened to come along I’m not knocking it back!”
Cummins laughs, and when she does the effect is sweetly disarming. She laughs often, but there is unmistakably a wealth of sadness behind her stories. Her recollections are viewed through a lens of abuse, depression and addiction, each forming a part of indigenous history that to this day remains all too common and unacknowledged.
“Most people have a stereotype of what it is to be Aboriginal. But what distinguishes your identity is how you express your belief systems and value judgements, certain behaviour and protocols. To me, that’s how my music makes sense. I just do what is culturally my existing dynamic, my everyday life. I do what my ancestors do.”
I notice that when Cummins is taken by a particular memory or observation her hands leap to her assistance, fists clenching and relaxing, soothing the empty air, and this is certainly the case as she recalls her first exposure to the sound that would play such a vital role in her life.
“I didn’t know that I liked the blues until I heard Ray Charles sing ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’. It got me right in the gut. Oh, the way it just poured out of him! Those singers who just had the edge, you know?
“My father was an amazing guitarist, though he first had to work as a stockman, a ringbarker. Working for only flour, sugar and tea. In my own father’s time! Is that not slavery? Even when he did find places to perform guitar they told him to put on a Hawaiian shirt if he wanted to play. He could be anything he wanted, just not Aboriginal. Such beautiful, amazing musicians. Those poor old blackfellas,” she chuckles sadly.
The Rachel Perkins-directed Black Panther Woman documentary itself serves as a fascinating, if confronting, story of indigenous life in Australia during the late ’60s and early ’70s – tales of oppression, poverty and police brutality were commonplace. Most damning of all, however, is the unforgivable extent to which domestic and sexual violence was able to flourish, and which has yet to be fully addressed to this day.
“I have endured things that are shared by a lot of other women…” Cummins starts, and for a time falls silent. There are tears in her eyes, and although many of her wounds are years old their sting remains fresh. “It’s just that I was put in a situation, I feel, due to the politics of the country, where I couldn’t speak at the time. It was difficult to speak out about your violation as a woman – for fighting for what are basic human rights – without the race card being called, without the expectation of having a stereotypical demonisation of Aboriginal men used against you.
“That’s what I struggled with. That attitude, that behaviour certainly happened to me while I was a Black Panther. Some people have been saying to me, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to see your doco, Aunty Marlene; that’s so cool you were in the Black Panthers.’ But it’s not all about being cool and deadly. At the start it had a cool look, you know? Standing up, taking a political stance with your black beret and your fists.”
Music is playing from somewhere down the hall, and the sound of passing traffic drifts through the window. The sound of the clock is very loud, and Cummins’ voice heavy with emotion.
“I wanted to tell you about my experience with the Black Panthers, of course, but I also wanted to use it as a platform to bring to the attention of the world the violence against women and children, period. I’m sick and tired of women taking responsibility for the violence that is done to them. I want to see men from every background, every ethnicity, all band together and take a firmer stand on violence against women, to the point that anyone who is about to perpetrate that crime will find themselves suddenly with a conscience about it. Even if it’s just them worried that they might not get away with it.
“And it’s just so common, so common. It’s such a disease. I want to open men’s eyes to realise just how oppressed we are. If you’re raping or abusing women and children, you can’t call yourself Aboriginal. You can’t assume an authority on Land Rights and be a misogynist. Misogyny is prevalent in every society. In India right now a woman is raped every 22 minutes. The issue of violence against women and children has to be recognised before anything else. For me, it’s the most important issue.”
Black Panther Woman is part of the Australian Documentary Foundation Award at Event Cinemas, George St on Thursday June 12 for the Sydney Film Festival 2014, tickets available online. Marlene Cummins will also be launching her albumKoori Woman Blues at the Metro Theatre immediately after the screening.