With ‘Mabo’ set to hit our television screens soon, FilmInk spoke to actor Jimi Bani who tackled the role of a man who profoundly changed this country’s history.
To commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the landmark decision, ABC TV and Blackfella Films have teamed up for the Rachel Perkins-directed telemovie, Mabo, which will screen June 10 after its premiere at the Sydney Film Festival. The emotional film recalls the High Court decision for native title, overthrowing the fiction of terra nullius, which implied that Australia was a land belonging to no one at the time of colonisation. FilmInk caught up with actor Jimi Bani who was recruited by Perkins to tackle the iconic role of Eddie ‘Koiki' Mabo.
Was it an honour or was it intimidating to play Mabo?
[Laughs] It was an honour and a privilege to get offered the role, but I felt so much responsibility on my shoulders. Intimidating? Yes! Luckily I had Rachel [Perkins, Director], and especially Deborah Mailman who plays Bonita Mabo [Eddie's wife].
What made his story compelling for you - was it the conflict that you had to balance? Showing a great but flawed man trying to do something very important, but on the other end internally things were falling apart for him?
Being a Torres Strait Islander, I grew up with Uncle Eddie's story. My Dad was always telling me what happened in the court case and I heard other stories about how much struggle he went through and who supported him. All the Torres Strait Council had their hands tied with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protection Act. That had a really big impact on me. I had to really put myself aside, jump in his shoes and really go there. But at the end of the day, it's a love story between the love that Aunty Nita had with him. If not for her, he would have fallen apart. That's the connection I have with Uncle Eddie - my partner Adelia and my four kids are my ground and rock too. They keep me in touch with the real world.
Is that the key part of the story for you, the love between land and Bonita? That was the thing that kept him going?
It was the land that pushed him forward. But it was Aunty Nita that kept him together. I truly believe that the amount of struggles that he went through were also faced by Aunty Nita as well. I'm really glad that Sue Smith [writer] and BlackFella Films turned the storyline into a love story. That's the heart of his story.
When you say Aunty Nita, is there a family connection?
There's a connection through my mum, but it shows respect to where I come from in calling them aunty and uncle.
Was it Brian Cox that told you to go out and seize this opportunity, to be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid?
[Laughs] It's just ridiculous how things come together. I had the opportunity of performing with Brian Cox in The Straits [television series]. The character of Marou has a different level of emotion that I have to sort of attack as an actor.
Are you pleased that Mabo was done by the ABC for the 20th Anniversary?
Yeah, I mean the 20th anniversary. Why couldn't the story be told years ago? It's just one of those stories that have to be told. I remember Gail Mabo [Eddie's daughter] said this to me: ‘You're the only Torres Strait Islander who is actually really prepared in this industry, and really prepared as an actor to play Dad.' And I thought that to myself too, because as soon as they offered me the role, it wasn't about me, it was actually about the story. If I wouldn't have done it, I would've felt guilty. So I put every single thing that I had into him.
Was it challenging to act opposite Miranda Otto? It seems like if the antagonist was Joh Bjelke-Petersen or Bob Katter it would have been more clear cut. In cross-examining you, she cast doubt about the native title cause...
As soon as I heard Miranda Otto was going to play Margaret White, I thought this is an opportunity to work opposite one of Australia's great actresses. I learned a lot, even though we only had three scenes together. Because of the intimidation that she could put across, it really helped me being in the stand, I didn't have to act. I just needed to react. Just be in the moment and just listen to her. She did drill me that day, and it was really perfect for the story.
Remember this is our Australian history - it's a part of us. It changed a lot of things that day when the High Court made the decision. We have a great opportunity to go into Mabo's life and see what happens in his household, and explore how and why and what made him fight.
What can you possibly do now that is more important than this? You're at Sydney theatre company now, but do you feel that you've possibly just done your life's greatest work?
It just inspires me to tell more of our stories. At the moment I'm really focusing on writing, trying to get that down and put some plays up and short films. When I was at university, I really wanted to play Othello. Shakespeare's Othello was my dream role. But then I got to play a Torres Strait Islander hero. And that actually ticked the box for me [laughs]. I don't have that drive anymore. Maybe one day I will play Othello.
Mabo is set to have a very special world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival on Thursday, 7 June at 8.30pm at the State Theatre before screening on ABC1 on Sunday, 10 June at 8.30pm.
Picture caption: Jimi Bani as Eddie Mabo and Deborah Mailman as Bonita Mabo.