The 1992 Landmarks High Court case abolishing ‘Terra Nullius’; the foundation of Australia’s settlement, paved way for the ‘Native Title Act 1993’. Following the 20-year commemoration of the Mabo decision, the 2012 film ‘Mabo’ directed by Rachel Perkins was released. It depicts the life of the Murray Islander activist, Eddie Koiki Mabo and his family in his gruelling fight for land rights. Koiki Mabo could not have accomplished his legal triumph on his own. He was able to reach the high goals he set for himself with the aid of both close family and the Mer community; however, he was forced to seek his own redemption alongside the ordeal of the court case due to his own unthoughtful and self-centred actions in regard to his wife and children. A large part of Koiki’s intentions to change the law of Terra Nullius can be attributed to his desire to improve the quality of living of his children throughout their lives so that they did not have to endure Koiki’s tribulations. Both Koiki’s blood relatives and close members of the Mer community come to his aid throughout his plight to achieve his goals. Rachel Perkins’ film tells a deeply important Australian story of an individual battle; of a family who struggle to hold together through difficult times; of the love between a husband and wife, and whether that love can survive the pressures of external commitment to social activism and of inheritance and chosen heritage.
Through the importance of family, Mabo depicts a beautifully powerful love story. Netta’s love and devotion are critical to Koiki’s search for justice. Throughout the film, Netta is staunchly loyal to Koiki, her assistance ranging from small gestures such as “laying out his clothes” for the “twenty on years” they have been married, to walking with him by his side during many activist marches and assisting Koiki with the “black community school” he founded. As Koiki’s wife, she has stuck by him through all the ups and downs of the court case and was willing to travel with him to Mer, consoling him when “Killoran and the council” rejected his appeal to visit the island and his dying father. Koiki’s pride in his children and what he has been able to pass down and instil in them was a part of what motivated him to pursue and win the legal case. When his children grow older they begin to care for him in turn asking if he is “alright” when he begins to show symptoms of his cancer and staying close by even as his condition deteriorates, helping him to stay as strong as he can while they await a verdict. Eddie always dreams of taking his family home to Murray Island. While courting Bonita, Eddie tells her, sentimentally, while sitting on the beach, “I’m gonna take you to Murray one day”. His love and pride in his cultural origins are evident in all his actions. After he marries Bonita, Eddie informs his parents, “I’m coming back for sure.” He paints the sacred mountains as a reminder of his strong ties. On his sick bed, he urges Bonita to one day take his remains and the family back to his beloved Murray Island.
Benny Mabo, Koiki’s adoptive father, built and solidified Koiki’s connection to his land and culture as a young child, teaching him that “everything on the island is his.” Without Benny, Koiki would not have established the steadfast loyalty to his culture and community that prompted him to pursue the court case in the first place. On a personal level, Eddie wishes to prove his father’s prediction wrong. He does not go to the mainland and “forget everything”. Owing to his cultural pride, he is desperate to gain his father’s respect for his monumental fight for justice for the Meriam people. Sadly, the Protection Board does not grant Eddie permission to return to Murray Island to see his dying father. A close-up shot shows an anxious Eddie, urgently, waiting for his pass. He sends the indigenous officer back to the office several times, but the answer is always in the negative. Dejected, he realises he will not make up to his beloved father and give him the chance to be proud of his son.
His strong bond on the community of Mer is demonstrated through the Murray Islanders welcoming the lawyers onto their land with open arms for the Supreme Court’s “first sitting…on Murray Island,” and Dave Passi’s return as a plaintiff to the Mabo case. It is evident that Koiki has made an effort to pass the values so important to the community of Mer down to his children and to continue that trait of care and support in the Mabo bloodline. This is most evident in his son, who is shown in a direct parallel to Koiki as a young boy, when he recites Malo’s law off by heart at the dinner table. This scene is interspersed with shots of Benny Mabo guiding young Koiki and telling him the story in his native language. The Judge bases his findings on a narrow-reading of “family”, believing that the defence case is using irrelevant examples to prove that there is a link between land and cultural associations and connections.
Without all this support from those close to him, Koiki would not have completed his goals to such a high standard, although the plight to prevail certainly had an impact on his relationships.