By the time the first episode of Redfern Now went to air in 2012, the show had already cemented its place in the country’s history as the first TV series commissioned, written, acted and produced by Indigenous Australians.
Two six-episode seasons and a telemovie made clear the scale of the achievement: it was not just a landmark production but an exceptionally well-made and powerful anthology drama, with a great knack for immersing audiences in the lives of characters they have just met. Ten years on, the contemporaneous element implied by its title still rings true: any episode can be watched today without it feeling politically or culturally dated.
This is good news for Netflix subscribers, with the entire two seasons and feature-length telemovie Redfern Now: Promise Me arriving on the platform late last month. Each episode is a self-contained narrative based in the titular Sydney suburb, home to one of the oldest urban Aboriginal settlements and a community – where much of the drama takes place – called The Block, known for its rich history of activism.
One of The Block’s key aesthetic features was a massive mural of the Aboriginal flag, painted onto the back of a local gym in 2000. This iconic artwork was sadly destroyed in 2019 but lingers throughout Redfern Now, both as a huge painted backdrop and a spiritual scaffolding emphasising the community’s Aboriginality. The mural is incorporated into the show’s opening credits sequence, and periodically revisited to ratchet up visual gravitas by its writers and directors, an impressive roll call of Indigenous talent – including Rachel Perkins, Catriona McKenzie, Wayne Blair, Leah Purcell, Jon Bell and Beck Cole.
At the end of “Pretty Boy Blue” (episode six of season one), for instance, local cop Aaron Davis (Blair, starring as this recurring character in addition to directing two episodes) walks down the street, the mural behind him, after a climactic moment involving a grieving family discovering he behaved terribly towards their now-deceased son while on duty. Perkins, the director, visually illustrates the profound tension Aaron experiences as a man caught between allegiance to his uniform – reflecting white person’s law – and his First Nations heritage. (This tension was also memorably explored in Bangarra Dance Theatre’s surreal 2015 film Spear, which was advertised with the tagline “A foot in each world. A heart in none.”)
A sense of community is core to Redfern Now, bringing a feeling of consistency to the disparate storylines. Several episodes involve characters moving between Redfern locations, guiding us through issues key to the local populace. For example in “Family”, the first episode of the first season, Grace (Leah Purcell) door-knocks from house to house, desperately looking for someone to take care of her nephew and niece after she has their mother committed. This is an early indication of the show’s combination of tightly wrought drama, emotionally gripping storylines and superlative performances.
This introductory episode pointed inwards: to the Redfern community and Grace’s family and circumstances. Other episodes function as springboards to explicitly explore broader issues about Australian identity. “Stand Up” (episode four, season one) uses the story of a stubborn but morally justified teenager, Joel (Aaron McGrath) – a precocious student who won a scholarship to an exclusive private school – to pry open a discussion of the national anthem. Eleven minutes in, a powerful shot depicts Joel surrounded by white kids all singing ‘Advance Australia Fair’, while he remains silent and stares solemnly ahead.
As a young Indigenous man, Joel decides the anthem doesn’t apply to him and refuses to sing it, standing his ground amid enormous pressure from teachers and the principal. Narrative premises like this, skilfully developed and satisfying as both personal storylines and wider political statements, compels questioning of long-held assumptions, challenging the white, Judeo-Christian patriarchy that has long dominated our cultural and historical perspectives. The discussion provoked by this episode preceded an actual – albeit very small – change to the national anthem in 2020, when the words “for we are young and free” became “for we are one and free.”
Another great example of Redfern Now exploring an area under-represented in drama can be found in “Where the Heart Is” (episode one, season two), in which a gay Indigenous man, Peter (Kirk Page), fights for custody of his young daughter after his partner Richard (Oscar Redding) is killed in a car accident. Richard’s homophobic mother (Noni Hazlehurst) takes Peter to court, where he not just faces the potential loss of his daughter but has his lifestyle and sexuality put on trial.
This leads to one of the most emotionally affecting courtroom speeches in Australian television history, the protagonist addressing the judge and reflecting on his sexuality (“I still remember the change in my father’s eyes when he found out I was gay…”) in a two-minute speech with the weight of the entire episode behind it. Another memorable albeit thoroughly unsettling courtroom scene transpires in Promise Me, during which Deborah Mailman’s Lorraine Blake – the victim of a serial rapist – is accused of fabricating her story in a gross perversion of the truth; she too has her life put on trial.
Redfern Now isn’t light viewing, that’s for sure, though I’m hesitant to describe it as “hard-hitting”, given that phrase has a way of putting people off. (Have you ever said to yourself “I’m in the mood for something hard-hitting tonight!” before picking up the remote control?) Gripping, compelling, powerful: perhaps these are better adjectives to describe a series that ventures to deep places in widely accessible ways. The show couldn’t have been based anywhere but Redfern, yet there is no doubting its broader significance. This great series also seems to cross the expanse of time – the “now” implying an urgency every bit as relevant today as it was a decade ago.
Both seasons of Redfern Now and Redfern Now: Promise Me are now streaming on Netflix Australia