For any politically engaged viewer, the fierce social criticism at the core of the television series Cleverman will be immediately apparent. The series pulls no punches in its attack on the Australian government’s racist policies towards Indigenous people and asylum seekers, while commenting on very real debates among these communities and their allies over how best to resist them.
The story focuses on Indigenous half-brothers Koen and Waruu West. The deeply cynical Koen has been reluctantly anointed by his Uncle Jimmy as the new “Cleverman”, and bestowed with magical powers. He acts as a conduit between the Dreaming and the real world. This is a blow to his older brother, Waruu, an ambitious community leader who has long coveted the role. Their relationship forms the key source of narrative tension.
Most of the action plays out in the “Zone” where Koen and Waruu grew up. It is a semi-self-managed area inhabited by Indigenous people and “Hairies”, a long-hidden species dubbed “sub-humans” by racist politicians, journalists and police. The series begins with Koen selling out a family of refuge-seeking Hairies to the Containment Authority, which oversees security in the Zone under the direction of the Minister of Immigration and Border Protection, Geoff Matthews.
In reality the Zone resembles a ghetto, an occupied territory or detention centre in Nauru. The parallels are numerous: checkpoints, blocked supply trucks, barely existing or inadequate health care, and almost total economic exclusion, not to mention the massive military and police apparatus surrounding the Zone keeping its inhabitants under control. Hairy and Indigenous families are subject to summary incarceration, family separation, and violence at the hands of the state.
Superficial signs of self-management are evident in the Zone’s gym and boxing space, and the free medical clinic run by Dr Charlotte Cleary, a white liberal who happens to be married to one of the show’s main villains, the wealthy biomedicine entrepreneur Jarrod Slade. Slade and the corrupt (and sexually exploitative) minister Matthews, have grand, yet competing designs for the prime real estate occupied by the Zone and, sickeningly, its inhabitants.
While the show has been labelled dystopian by some reviewers, for audiences familiar with Australian politics, Koen’s world is far closer to reality than any dystopian fiction could ever be. Central plot-drivers include corporate and political corruption; profit-based and unethical biomedicine; media manipulation and censorship; military funding, infrastructure and equipment; the scapegoating of oppressed, desperate and socially excluded minorities in the service of larger political agendas; and attempts to play these minorities and their representatives off against one another.
This is all very close to home. In the same month that Cleverman was airing in Australia, video evidence emerged of the violent and systematic abuse of Indigenous children in prisons in the Northern Territory, while 2,000 documents dubbed the “Nauru files” were leaked to the Guardian newspaper detailing similar abuse of asylum seekers – including sexual assault and killings – in the Nauru detention centre.
In this way, Cleverman is reminiscent of the exploration of class, race and the state in the American series The Wire. It also touches on other important issues, such as the politics of reproduction, the break-up of families, and forced sex work, which serve to highlight questions of class difference.
Cleverman is the first series of this length (6 episodes) with a majority Indigenous cast, and has a core focus on the politics of racism. It was granted a second season before the first episode even went to air. The first season has successfully set up the main tensions over how the Zone community and its leaders should resist the government, corporate interests and racist attitudes. It will be interesting to see how and whether these are resolved in the second season.