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Black Snow on Stan burns brightly – review

This crime drama, created with cultural input from the local South Sea Islander community, is a hugely compelling mystery.

When former Prime Minister Scott Morrison erroneously claimed that Australia did not have a history of slavery, one of the communities hit hardest by this casual act of ignorant erasure was that of the South Sea Islander peoples who call Queensland home. Many of their ancestors were forcibly ceased from their homelands, shackled and brought against their will to Australia, then set to brutally unforgiving work in the sugar cane fields that proliferate across tropical North Queensland to this day.

In truth, ‘Blackbirding’ is a terrible scar that not enough Australians are aware of, in a nation riddled with the stinging mark of many such atrocities. The lasting impacts of such a heinous crime are long, as intergenerational trauma does its terrible work. This difficult history seeps into the bones of gripping crime drama, Black Snow.

In a reassuring move, showrunner Lucas Taylor puts the community voice front and centre. Spanning two distinct timelines, newcomer Talijah Blackman-Corowa, a Toolooa woman from the Gurang Nation and an Australian South Sea Islander, is a revelation in the ‘90s set sequences, replete with a VHS rental store.

Playing 17-year-old high schooler Isabel, she’s a headstrong young woman with a bright curiosity and snappy sense of humour. About to graduate, she has her whole life ahead of her. A life cruelly cut short by persons unknown.

Taylor and co-writers Beatrix Christian and Boyd Quemado ensure that Isabel is not an absence in the story. Indeed, her determination to get to the bottom of something fishy surrounding the local sugar cane industry in the fictional town of Ashford, belching the ash that gives the show its title, leads to her demise.

Time capsule

When a time capsule is dug up 25 years later, it turns out Isabel was smart enough to leave a clue to her suspicions. Someone else added an artefact that could only have come from the murder scene. This brings in outsider Detective Cormack, a rumpled figure nursing the obligatory wounded soul, from Brisbane. As depicted by wolf-eyed Vikings star Travis Fimmel, Cormack is faced with the very Lynchian prospect that this working-class town harbours many buried secrets. ‘The biggest challenge with cold cases is finding out who people really were back then,’ he notes.

Gulliver McGrath plays the green local blue heeler assigned to officially assist Cormack by Kim Gyngell’s grumpy cop shop boss who ran the original investigation. Jemmason Power,  another remarkable new talent, is the real wingwoman.

A Juru woman from the Birri Gubba Nation, with lineage connecting her to the Tanna, Santos, West-Ambrym and Solomon Islands, she plays Isabel’s now-adult younger sister Hazel (portrayed by Molly Fatnowna in the flashbacks). She’s determined to bring the killer to justice, even if she is untrusting of Cormack at first.

Power, as luminous a screen presence as Blackman-Corowa, easily holds her own alongside the more experienced Fimmel. The pair share a palpable chemistry that ensures folks start whispering about the nature of their relationship in Ashford’s tight-knit town that feels increasingly like a tinderbox on a 40-plus-degree day. Shows like this only light up thanks to the ensemble, and Black Snow burns brightly.

Down Under star Alexander England is a damaged man as Anton, haunted by the loss of his high school sweetheart Isabel, but it soon becomes clear that all was not roses in their relationship, with Josh Macqueen as the young Anton.

Class commentary

The Twelve actor Brooke Satchwell is also great as Isabel’s best friend Chloe (Annabel Wolfe in flashback), who has her own reasons for getting nervous when new information comes to light. Her storyline also introduces interesting class commentary, as she is the scion of mill owner Steve (Packed to the Rafters star Erik Thomson) and benefits from propping up the status quo.

Also in the mix/suspect line-up are Tasha (Kestie Morassi in the present day and Ava Carmont in the ‘90s), who was Anton’s secret sidepiece, and her troubled brother Billy (Joe Kelly/Anthony J Sharp). Or could it be that the truth lies closer to home, with Mabo star Jimi Bani’s Pastor Joe possibly implicated in the murder of his daughter?

Uniformly excellent, the cast also includes Seini Willett and Lisa Blackman as Isabel’s mum and aunt respectively, with loving family scenes set in the ‘90s offering welcome relief from the story’s darkest corners. Black Snow also introduces brilliant hip-hop star Ziggy Ramo, a First Nations man with a Wik and Solomon Islander father, as Zeke, a young man working at the mill without a visa in the ‘90s sequences who is connected to another suspicious missing person story.

If he’s not quite as comfortable on screen as his fellow newcomers as yet, Ramo certainly shows promise and makes a substantial impact on Black Snow with his powerful score, composed alongside Jed Palmer.

Tightly directed by Sian Davies and Matthew Saville and created with cultural input from the local South Sea Islander community, it’s a hugely compelling mystery. It’s also handsomely shot by cinematographer Eric Murray Lui, making full use of the sunburnt location. Seamlessly weaving past and present together in a way that acknowledges the ongoing impact of blackbirding, the rustle of towering sugar cane seems to summon forth cruelly silenced voices.

It’s incumbent on us all to listen.

Black Snow is currently streaming on Stan.