ANDh yes: the police detective who returns to their home town only to be ensnared in an investigation with shockingly personal implications. We’ve been down this road many times before, including in two recent high-quality Australian productions: the feature film The Dry and TV series Mystery Road: Origin.
In the former, Eric Bana investigates the supposed murder-suicide of an old friend and experiences a hostile reaction from the locals; in the latter, Mark Coles Smith (playing the iconic detective Jay Swan) wrestles with a case involving his estranged father – and experiences a hostile reaction from the locals.
Now, in True Colors – a four-part drama co-created by Erica Glynn and Warren H Williams – Rarriwuy Hick plays detective Toni Alma, who is grudgingly sent to investigate a suspicious car accident in her home community… where she experiences a hostile reaction from the locals.
When a superior orders her to return to Perdar Theendar (a fictional place, shot in Alice Springs and the East MacDonnell Ranges), Toni objects, arguing there’s “too much family” there and many people won’t talk to her. The superior responds: “At least some of the people will talk to you; no one will talk to us. “
One of the most interesting aspects of the script (written by Glynn, McGregor and Danielle MacLean) are the ways in which Indigenous customs and laws rub up against white-oriented policing. In some circumstances, having a badge offers Toni no authority at all. On one occasion, when she asks a local mechanic a question, he flat-out ignores her, telling her white police partner, Nick (Luke Arnold): “I can’t talk to her.”
Nick repeats the exact same question, which the mechanic promptly answers.
In another context this would play like farce, but here it’s serious and complex, pairing police procedural elements with cultural insight. The drama’s moral complexity peaks late in the series when (no spoilers) Toni erupts at her uncle Samuel (Williams, in an excellent supporting performance): “Don’t you hide behind our culture… you choose the cultural line when it suits you. “
He responds: “I know where my line is. I may have broken whitefella law – not my family law. “
For a long time these kinds of issues remained virtually unexplored on Australian screens, particularly in narrative productions (one exception being the 1981 documentary Two Laws). However, in the new century we are seeing more of them – including in Mystery Road: Origin, which contains a scene with detective Jay Swan (Mark Coles Smith) being asked, “You a policeman or a blackfella?”, To which he responds : “Why can’t I be both?”
True Colors (which airs over four consecutive nights, during Naidoc week) also touches on issues of kinship systems, sorry business and the commodification of Aboriginal art. The latter is relevant, plotwise, in ways that would be impertinent and spoilerific to disclose here.
The cultural insights are interesting, but structurally the focus of True Colors rests on procedural and noirish elements, which, while competently staged, are overly familiar – even boilerplate.
Hick has a modest and uninhibited appeal, her authenticity and down-to-earth charisma at home with lines like “I just wanna have a yarn.” But when she’s given more plot-oriented dialogue, such as “I don’t think it was just an accident”, there’s a tension between the naturalism of the performance and the contrived nature of the scenario.
Perhaps it’s a compliment, in a backhanded kind of way, that you don’t doubt True Colors’ realism – particularly its sense of community – even when the scenarios feel well-worn and overly reliant on the standard detective series playbook.
Some – like the protagonist being ensnared in an investigation with shockingly personal implications – are evergreen and to be expected. But too many are too familiar, and overall True Colors, while it has its moments, lacks vitality.
True Colors airs over four consecutive nights during Naidoc week, at 8.30pm until Thursday 7 July on SBS and NITV. The whole series will be available on SBS On Demand.