From ‘Bastardy’ to ‘Cleverman’: the magnetic Uncle Jack Charles on screen

Remembering the singular thespian, musician and raconteur as seen in ‘Bedevil’, ‘Bastardy’, ‘Cleverman’ and more

Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander readers are advised that this story contains the name and image of a person who has died. His family have given permission for his name and image to be shared.

The beloved Australian thespian, musician and raconteur Jack Charles passed away this month, age 79. Known for his cheeky humour and larger-than-life presence, the Boon Wurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, Woiwurrung and Yorta Yorta elder – widely known as “Uncle Jack” – left a large imprint on Australian culture. His death understandably drew many tributes, from political leaders – such as Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Victorian Premier Dan Andrews – to fellow artists and countless fans who will fondly remember that cheeky gleam in his eye.

The general public’s love for Charles was reflected in a conversation that started shortly after his death, about whose face should replace Queen Elizabeth II’s on the Australian five-dollar note. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that “King Charles III and Uncle Jack Charles were the most common names to pop up.” In other words: while the mothballed monarchy accounts for one kind of royalty, treasured figures such as Uncle Jack occupy another: the kings and queens as determined by the Australian people.

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A survivor of the Stolen Generations, who was taken away from his mother when he was four months old, Charles lived a hard life, dipping in and out of various institutions. These include orphanages when he was a child and prisons later on. Discussing his stay at the Salvation Army Boys’ Home at Box Hill, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs during an inquiry held in Victoria this year, Charles said: “It’s hard to convey the damage that place did to me. It wasn’t just the abuse that traumatised me; the Box Hill Boys’ Home stripped me of my Aboriginality.”

Uncle Jack’s eclectic mosaic of work spans many genres and styles, including nuggets of gold that only he could deliver

By his own accounts, Charles’ love of the stage saved him: “I think I owe my life to having found the theatre,” he also told the inquiry. In 1971 he co-founded Australia’s first Indigenous theatre group, the Nindethana Theatre, and a few years later played Bennelong in a production called Cradle of Hercules, sharing the stage with the late and great David Gulpilil. Charles kept returning to the stage all the way into his 70s.

In terms of leaving a legacy, the curse of theatre is its ephemerality: the magic of the stage derived from liveness and spontaneity, which cannot be stored or revisited. The majority of Uncle Jack Charles’s work can never be experienced again, living on only in the minds of those who sat before him, and in the organisations and cultures he helped define.

Like many successful stage actors, however, Charles also appeared in movies and television, which are far more accommodating mediums, legacy-wise – immortalising him in light and shadow.

Charles’s film and TV performances (which go back all the way to the ’70s) tend to be brief and often on narrative peripheries, many roles feeling more like appearances than fully fleshed out characters. But there are exceptions, and when you thread the various pieces together you get an eclectic mosaic of work, spanning many genres and styles, including nuggets of gold that only Uncle Jack could deliver.

One of his first screen performances was in the 1978 classic The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, which today might be viewed as a kind of proto-Django Unchained: the story of a half-caste Aboriginal man (Tom E. Lewis) who embarks on a mission of murderous revenge after suffering a lifetime of injustice at the hands of white perpetrators. Charles briefly appears as the prisoner Harry Edwards, in jail for killing a white man in self defense. He played many incarcerated characters throughout his career, including in the melodramatic Blackfellas (1993), the trippy triptych Bedevil (1993) and the supernatural TV series The Ghosts of Wheat Street (2014).

Of these, Bedevil is the work that stands out, both in broad cultural relevance – its director, Tracey Moffatt, became the first Indigenous woman to direct a feature film in Australia – and in sheer craft and style. Charles appears in the first of three stories as a prisoner recounting strange events that occurred in his youth, involving a swamp containing some kind of malevolent creature. The film has a strikingly unreal atmosphere, based in a kind of half-reality, made surreal by intensely styled sets and backgrounds. This kind of warped, hallucinatory look dates back all the way to German Expression and trippy classics such as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.

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The greatest film about Charles’s life is Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s 2008 documentary Bastardy. To say this is a warts-and-all picture of Charles is an understatement. Near the beginning we watch Charles fill a needle and inject heroin, noting that “if I…was to hide any of this, it wouldn’t be a true depiction.” After inserting the needle, he says “there’s no outwards signs that I’ve had a hit, is there?” Indeed there isn’t; the subject attributes this to many years of practice. This is the beginning of an astonishingly honest film, with scenes including Charles escorting the director to affluent Melbourne suburbs, taking him to houses that he’s robbed.

The production that captures Charles’s magnetic impact and guru-like presence is the Aboriginal superhero series Cleverman. Again this role is small (relegated to the first episode) but it’s narratively important. Charles plays the mystical figure – ”Uncle Jimmy” – who instigates the MacGuffin that swings the plot into gear. Based in a dystopian future where a race called “Hairies” suffer discrimination and are ghettoised in a shanty-like area known as “The Zone,” Charles acts as a kind of conduit between two worlds: Hairy and non-Hairy; The Zone and the wider city.

Uncle Jimmy visits the protagonist Koen (Hunter Page-Lochard) in the trendy bar he owns and presents him with a warrior’s club, known as a “nulla nulla” or a “waddi.” He tells Koen that “it’s time you decide what tribe you belong to,” before scuttling off to perform his other duties: namely breathing life into a corpse then summoning a giant water beast from the sky. These acts bestow upon the reluctant protagonist superhuman powers (including a body impervious to pain) – making him Cleverman.

The aforementioned scene could be interpreted in several ways, including a metaphorical passing of the baton – from the elder Charles to a younger generation of Indigenous Australian performers. In that sense, it’s fitting that Cleverman features one of the great actor’s final performances. Uncle Jack may be gone, but his legacy will live on: there are a couple more feature films (the post-apocalyptic horror movie Patched and the biker drama Life After Man) that will return him to Australian screens once more.

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