'Sapphires' film spotlights Australian girl group who channeled US civil rights movement

Unbeknownst to most, in the 1960s, a group of aboriginal Australian singers took the initiative and inspiration of the American civil rights movement, and made it a launch pad for their own self-liberation. That group was called The Sapphires, and their story has not been told until now.

In the new film The Sapphires, hitting theaters Friday, director Wayne Blair brings to the screen the tale of four indigenous women in Australia who form a country music group and embark on a journey to surpass the racist system that has hindered their advancement. Set in 1968, it’s a true story spotlighting a moment in one family’s life, as they find voice amidst a background of social unrest and defy a homeland where they are not even considered citizens.

“The correlation between the Aboriginal civil rights movement and the American civil rights movement is very close,” Blair tells theGrio. “Your 1961 Freedom Rides that you guys did over here – it was about people sitting on a bus – we mirrored those freedom rides. Black and white students did a similar thing; they rode a bus across the countryside of New South Wales, and came across racism at that time…We sent a couple of delegations over and talked to American Civil Rights leaders to see what you guys were doing. Those blueprints became the blueprints for our movements in Australia.”

As shown in the movie, aboriginals were considered second class in Australia, and the government would often removed lighter-skinned children from their families under the law to be placed in white homes and learn white ways. The indigenous population looked to the U.S. to find inspiration and hope in the struggle African-Americans were facing.

“When Dr. King passes away, that affected us, especially in the major cities of Sydney and Melbourne,” Blair recalls. “Someone of color, who was our leader – that was sort of leading the world let alone the U.S.A. – to be assassinated like that was huge.”

It was a blow to Australia’s loudest protestors, but the movement continued and became an accent for The Sapphires’ initiative.

The war in Vietnam serves as further centerpiece for the film when the girls enter a contest to travel to Saigon and sing for the troops. They team with a local manager (Chris O’Dowd), who helps them get a foot in the door despite his drunken demeanor, and introduces them to a new sound better fitted for their voice. At the time, culture was relatively homogenous in Australia, and country music was the national treasure.

“Country music has always been within our communities,” says star Jessica Mauboy, a pop/R&B singer who won Australian Idol in 2006. “I grew up with country music, my mom and dad did too, and it was passed down. It was sort of storytelling for the elders.”

As The Sapphires begin to mold their identity however, they shift to the more fitting palate of American soul. Out go the acoustics guitars, in come The Temptations and The Supremes, and suddenly, the group gets amplified.

The new voice makes a big splash. The Sapphires win the contest and leave Australia for the first time ever to venture into a war zone. Along the way, there is love, heartbreak, and of course internal bickering, but the expedition details the significance of such an opportunity to the future of indigenous culture.

“It’s a simple story, it’s about love and loss, family and self-actualization,” Blair remarks. “These aboriginal girls went into this war zone. They didn’t even have the right to vote in their country, and here they were finally free. They were the most free they’d ever been in their lives.”

Mauboy adds, “It was nurturing for their family, and where they’d come from to be able to do their journey, and take it back home and give their community something to have hope and believe. They were a part of something great. They gave the aboriginal community a big pathway.”

Yet surprisingly, the group and their story never gained fame until recently when one of the real-life women casually mentioned it her son, writer Tony Briggs, and he made it into a stage and screenplay.

“Back in those days, they weren’t known at all,” Blair explains. “That’s where it’s different. They weren’t known. It was like they did their own thing in Melbourne then they got an opportunity. It’s based on their lives too; it’s not just inspired by them. The Sapphires went to Vietnam, and when they got back, they disbanded, they started families, they basically worked for the aboriginal cause.”

The film was shot over six weeks in four cities across Australia, as well as in Vietnam, and premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2012. Blair actually starred in the original play, and was later approached by Briggs to direct the film. From Blair’s perspective, it marks a “promise between two good friends,” and advancement for Australian indigenous filmmakers.

“Indigenous films have been in Cannes the last three years,” he points out. “If someone just gives us an opportunity or a chance, we jump on it because we’re trying to get our stories out there.”

According to Blair and Mauboy, Australia has improved in the way the U.S. has when it comes to civil rights: everyone is equal in theory, but a discrepancy exists in the opportunity and power allotted to various populations. Mauboy says one of the reasons she wanted to take on this role was because she is of mixed race, and was raised without much insight into her aboriginal side.

Blair also expresses the ongoing need for cultural actualization.

“Australia’s changed pretty vastly, but there’s still along way to go,” he says. “At least aboriginal people are counted as citizens these days. We’ve only been counted since ‘68…There’s always a sort of continuing struggle with identity and culture and how you regain your culture if you want to. There’s so much detail to be had, but of course, it’s still a present factor over every indigenous person in Australia. It’s something we think about, and how we keep culture alive and whether you choose to do that or not.”

Follow Courtney Garcia on Twitter at @CourtGarcia