Release Date(s)2002 (October 6, 2021)
Studio(s)New Vision Films (Umbrella Entertainment – Sunburnt Screens #10)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A-
[Editor’s Note: This Blu-ray release is REGION-FREE.]
Black and White dramatizes the story of Max Stuart, a South Australian aboriginal man who was convicted of murdering a nine-year-old girl in 1959 and sentenced to death based primarily on a confession that may have been coerced. His execution was stayed repeatedly thanks to a publicity crusade waged by Rupert Murdoch, of all people, in his Adelaide paper The News. Stuart went through an unsuccessful appeals process before a Royal Commission was convened to investigate his case. Ultimately, his death sentence was commuted, but the conviction was upheld. Black and White features David Ngoombujarra as Stuart, with Robert Carlyle & Kerry Fox as his lawyers, Charles Dance as the Crown Prosecutor, Ben Mendelsohn as Murdoch, and Colin Friels as a Catholic Priest whose knowledge of Stuart’s indigenous Arrernte language demonstrated the implausible nature of the written confession.
Screenwriter Louis Nowra and director Craig Lahiff waste little time getting to Stuart’s initial trial, deliberately eliding the actual murder as well as most of the arrest and interrogation. Instead, they build those events through flashbacks seen from the point of view of the opposite sides of the case. There’s a touch of Rashomon in that approach, but in the case of Black and White, the truth remains elusive. The film doesn’t try to resolve the question of Stuart’s guilt or innocence as much as it raises questions regarding the process that convicted him, the arbitrariness of the laws regarding appeals, and the inequity in the treatment of indigenous peoples under Australian law. In the end, Black and White is a title that defines the film both literally and ironically. It does address issues regarding racial injustice, but it also acknowledges that justice isn’t always black or white.
Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson shot Black and White on 35 mm film using Moviecam Compact cameras and spherical Cooke S4 lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. There’s no information regarding the elements that were used for the transfer on Umbrella’s Blu-ray release, but if it didn’t come from the original camera negative, it was at least a high-quality secondary element. The opening credits and all other optical work look a little soft and rough from the unavoidable generational loss, but the rest of the film exhibits a nice amount of fine detail. The textures on clothing are well-defined, and facial textures and backgrounds exhibit similar levels of detail. The image is quite clean, with only the smallest of speckling occasionally visible (but that’s when viewed on a projection screen—it’s likely not noticeable on a smaller flat panel). Colors, contrast, and black levels are all solid.
Audio is offered in English 5.1 and 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio with optional English subtitles. The film was released theatrically in 5.1, so there’s no explanation why a mono mix would be included. The 5.1 mix isn’t an aggressive one, but it doesn’t need to be. It offers a consistent sense of ambience, with some directionalized effects like birds flying past the viewer. Cezary Skubiszewski’s score provides most of the stereo spread, and dialogue is always clear (aside from a few of the accents, that is, but that’s not an issue with the mix).
Umbrella’s Region-Free Blu-ray of Black and White is #10 in their Sunburnt Screens line. The insert is reversible, with one side omitting the mandatory Australian “M” classification from the front cover artwork, and also substituting the theatrical poster art for the back cover blurb. The following extras are included:
- Politics, Power, Justice and the Media (Upscaled HD – 209:31)
- Original Electronic Press Kit with Cast and Crew Interviews (Upscaled HD – 20:18)
- 7.30 Report (ABC) Segment on the Max Stuart Case (Upscaled HD – 6:52)
- Deleted Scenes (Upscaled HD – 19:52)
- Interview with Max Stuart (Upscaled HD – 9:57)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:01)
Politics, Power, Justice and the Media is a seminar about the controversies related to the Max Stuart case. It was held in 2006 at the University of Adelaide, and it features Geoffrey Robinson QC, former High Court Justice Michael Kirby AC CMG, and many others. Divided into multiple sessions, it runs a whopping three and a half hours in total. It opens with a useful description of all the key individuals who were involved in the case, many of whom are not portrayed in Black and White. The first session features two consecutive lectures that introduce the subject and then lay out the known facts of the case, utilizing clips from the film. The second session covers the preparation for the trial; the third covers the trial itself; the fourth covers the appeals and the influence of the media on the case; the fifth covers the Royal Commission inquiry into the case; and the sixth focuses on the role of the media in general. It closes with an interview with Max Stuart that was conducted in 2002. While it’s a lengthy extra with some fairly dry lectures, it’s still a fascinating glimpse into the intersection of the law, politics, and the media, as well as Australian cultural issues.
The Original Electronic Press Kit features interviews with actors David Ngoombujarra, Robert Carlyle, Kerry Fox, Charles Dance, and Ben Mendelsohn, all of whom talk about their respective roles in the film. It also includes interviews with director Craig Lahiff, writer Louis Nowra, and producers Helen Leake & Nik Powell. They discuss developing the story and the script, the production, and the Max Stuart case. The 7:30 Report is a brief news segment about the release of Black and White in 2002, with a few details about the case and the film. There are 12 Deleted Scenes in total, some of which are scene extensions, while the rest are new sequences. The Interview with Max Stuart is from the same session with him in Politics, Power, Justice and the Media, but it’s organized and edited a little differently, and also lacks the subtitles from that version (Stuart’s dialect is a bit thick).
The Max Stuart case may not be familiar to many people outside of Australia, but Black and White is a good starting point to learn more. Thanks to the deep extras that Umbrella has included on their Blu-ray release of the film, it’s really more than just a starting point; it’s a classroom on disc.
- Stephen Bjork