This week on our blog, Insight writer Anica Boulanger-Mashberg discusses the comparison texts Charlie’s Country and The Hate Race.
Comparing texts is a rich way of weaving together and exploring themes, issues and perspectives. When one text is a personal work of literary nonfiction and one is an atmospheric and poetic film, there are many differences to be found between them, but both The Hate Race (Maxine Beneba Clarke) and Charlie’s Country (dir. Rolf de Heer) have a lot to say about a number of confronting and thought-provoking issues we should all, as Australians, be interrogating deeply: principally, these are racism, identity and belonging. The study of these issues through these two texts provides many entry points into understanding and questioning the complexities of contemporary Australian cultural identity and diversity. Both texts challenge us to examine our own assumptions and preconceptions, one by focusing on Beneba Clarke’s lived experience and the other by examining the fictional yet uncomfortably realistic incursions into Charlie’s community.
In Beneba Clarke’s memoir The Hate Race, she openly shares her memories of growing up Afro-Caribbean Australian in the 80s and 90s. Her experience of both intentional and incidental racism and discrimination is the pervasive thread running through the entire book. She shows us the effect this treatment had on her childhood, from causing emotional trauma to destabilising her nascent sense of self and identity. Her voice is incisive, vulnerable and honest, and gives us a very personal insight into what many people of colour in Australia experience daily, hourly, and even minute to minute. Although Maxine was born in Australia, her physical differences – her skin colour and even her hair – set her apart from her mostly white peer group and environment, and the relentless bullying by her schoolmates undermines her sense of her Australianness, her physical and emotional safety and, ultimately, some of the value she places on herself. This discrimination creates an internal conflict between Maxine’s pride regarding her own body and family heritage, and the external messages she constantly receives, encouraging her to be ashamed of her identity. The memoir gives us access to the young Maxine’s unremitting internal processing of this, mediated by the adult Maxine’s (the author’s) perspective.
In stark contrast to The Hate Race, the protagonist in Charlie’s Country, Charlie, is profoundly quiet. The film constructs him from an outsider’s perspective, and what we learn of him is often implied by sparse dialogue and long, still and magnetising extreme close-ups on Charlie’s face. Extended scenes of Charlie alone in the bush are often complemented by a haunting and beautiful soundtrack of sparse, suspended piano melodies and the diegetic sounds of the landscape he belongs to, rather than by explicit narration. This lyrical mode is only one aspect of the narrative, however; the film also explicitly lays bare the ways in which Charlie has been dispossessed of his own country, as well as the concrete impacts of this, such as when he is prevented from hunting for food or when he is flown to Darwin hospital where a doctor can’t pronounce ‘foreign names’. Charlie’s story is no less devastating than Beneba Clarke’s, and they share many experiences of discrimination, but the stories are told in dramatically different modes. Comparing the texts enriches the interpretation of each – Charlie’s melancholy silence contrasts with Beneba Clarke’s relentless analysis of her every experience and feeling – but both tell stories of being marginalised, judged and disempowered in an Australia that claims to take pride in its multiculturalism, even while denying its history of colonial invasion and the dispossession of First Australians, as well as its legacy of discrimination towards new Australians. Both texts confront any assumptions that might be made by a dominant white Australian culture that we are an inclusive society. As both the memoir and the film indicate, this is heartbreakingly far from the truth.
The contrast in genre between the two texts provides a fertile starting point for understanding how to examine texts. The Hate Race is heavily based on subjective textual descriptions of events and feelings, while Charlie’s Country ‘speaks’ compellingly in the language of cinema, which often relies more on nonverbal elements of communication. In this film, for example, the image composition, sound and shot length construct Charlie’s world and, by implication, highlight what he has lost. Without direct verbal information at times, we are invited to find the meaning in what we are seeing, and to try to understand Charlie’s life from the perspective of an outsider. Beneba Clarke, on the other hand, directly tells us how discrimination affects her. However, although the two texts use diverse stylistic and generic vocabularies to tell us their stories, they also share many intersecting features and techniques. One example is the way that each text uses repetition. Motifs in The Hate Race include reiterations of words and phrases such as ‘what’s a story for’ (a reference to the West Indian way of storytelling), while in Charlie’s Country motifs are mainly visual, such as the many scenes of Charlie sitting in front of his fire, or the repetitive montage of daily work and meals when Charlie is in prison. Such motifs powerfully emphasise the ideas de Heer and Beneba Clarke explore.
Ultimately, both texts challenge us to answer the question of whether these characters are representations of hopelessness or resilience.
Sample essay questions:
- ‘These two texts are both portraits of hopelessness, not resilience.’ Discuss.
- How does the use of cinematic language in Charlie’s Country parallel the use of written language in The Hate Race?
- What do The Hate Race and Charlie’s Country say about the impact of racism?
- What does ‘Australian’ mean in each of these texts?
- “… you’ve got a house. On my land. Where’s my house?” (Charlie’s Country). How do these two texts explore the idea of belonging?
- ‘Maxine and Charlie both succeed in integrating multiple cultural identities into their sense of self.’ To what extent do you agree?
Need more help with comparing texts? We have an Insight Comparison Guide for every Year 12 English/EAL text pair. Written by experienced English teachers and professional writers with expertise in literature and film criticism, each Insight Comparison Guide includes a detailed breakdown of each of the two texts, and a close analysis of their shared ideas, issues and themes.
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