Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following story contains images and names of people who have died.
THERE’S NO DENYING that the history of First Nations representation on Australian screens is murky, to say the least. Marred by exoticised tropes, exclusionary practices, and blackface to boot; the origins of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories and characters in film and television were far from authentic and certainly lacked a great deal of nuance.
But thanks to a visionary contingent of First Nations filmmakers, in more recent years, we’ve been able to see Blak stories told on screen in holistic ways, across a range of movies and series that traverse all manner of genres, from musical comedies to outback noirs. Behind the cameras, the likes of Warwick Thornton, Ivan Sen and Rachel Perkins have directed critically acclaimed pieces that have travelled the world, while actors from the late and revered David Gulpilil, to Australian Idol alum Jessica Mauboy, and the brilliantly genre-fluid Deborah Mailman have dazzled in front of the lens.
Below, find Esquire’s non-exhaustive guide to the best First Nations films and TV series to watch.
Best Indigenous Australian films and TV shows
The Drover’s Wife (2021)
Stream on: Binge, Foxtel, Amazon Prime Video
There’s a lot that makes The Drover’s Wife a unique watch. Firstly, it’s written and directed by Leah Purcell, who also stars in the titular role — which made it the first Australian feature to be written, directed and starring a First Nations woman. It’s also a reworking of Australian bush poet Henry Lawson’s 1892 short story of the same name, which Purcell first reimagined through a feminist First Nations lens for the stage in 2016, before taking it to the big screen. The revisionist bush Western follows Molly Johnson, a lonely woman running the family farm as she tries to raise — and protect — her children while her husband is away.
Samson & Delilah (2009)
Stream on: Netflix, SBS
Samson & Delilah might have been Warwick Thornton’s debut feature film, but that wasn’t going to stop it from being an international success — it was selected for the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, and won the prestigious Caméra d’Or. It follows the titular characters, a pair of 14-year-olds who live in an isolated community in Central Australia. When they steal the only car in the community in the plans of eloping to Alice Springs, they embark on a challenging journey — during which they find themselves falling in love.
Mystery Road (2018)
Stream on: ABC iView, Stan, Amazon Prime Video
Writer-director Ivan Sen’s feature films Mystery Road and Goldstone were so successful that they inspired this spinoff series set between the two films. A neo-Western-crime-mystery hybrid, it follows Indigenous detective Jay Swan as he delves into gripping, elusive cases, uncovering the still-fresh wounds of colonisation. If you’re not already sold, allow us to introduce you to its directors: Rachel Perkins (the daughter of Charles Perkins, and director of Bran Nue Dae and Jasper Jones, which also appear on this list) took on season 1, Warwick Thornton headed up season 2, and his son Dylan River was at the helm of season 3.
The Sapphires (2012)
Stream on: Netflix
I’d be shocked if you haven’t yet seen The Sapphires, the film based on the true story of the singing group of the same name. Starring four icons — Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell — the musical-drama follows a quartet of First Nations women in late ’60s Australia, who become unlikely stars when they are recruited to sing for American troops in Vietnam. It’s highly entertaining (and naturally, the music is super catchy) but also deeply moving in its exploration of the effects of the Stolen Generation — and its that tightrope walk that likely earned it a 10-minute standing O at Cannes.
My Name is Gulpilil (2021)
Stream on: Netflix, Foxtel, Amazon Prime Video
If there’s one name that springs to mind when thinking of the history of First Nations film, it must be David Gulpilil. Born David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu, he was one of the most prolific and revered Indigenous actors we’ve known, loved for his roles in Walkabout, Storm Boy, Crocodile Dundee and more. This is his final film; a deeply moving and pensive documentary that sees the actor tell his own story for the first time while staring down his own mortality in the wake of his lung cancer diagnosis.
Stream on: SBS
The first feature film directed by a First Nations woman, beDevil is an anthology of three eerie ghost stories inspired by those writer-director Tracey Moffat heard as a child through her Indigenous and Irish families. Another Cannes alum, the film has a stunning surreal aesthetic as it traverses sparse outback, swampy islands, and a lonely town.
Jasper Jones (2017)
Stream on: Stan, Netflix
Exploring racism through the eyes of teenagers, Jasper Jones is based on Craig Silvey’s book of the same name. 14-year-old Charlie is shaken when his friend Jasper Jones shows him the dead body of a girl; and sets out to find her real killer to avoid his friend being blamed. Directed by Rachel Perkins and starring plenty of A-lister Australian talent (including Toni Colette and Hugo Weaving) it’s a gripping watch.
Redfern Now (2012)
Stream on: Stan, Netflix, ABC iView
Though it’s been gentrified in recent years, Redfern remains one of Sydney suburbs most deeply steeped in Indigenous history. So it makes sense that the first TV series “commissioned, written, acted and produced by Indigenous Australians,” would be set there. The series traces the modern ramifications of colonialism and the Stolen Generation, telling the stories of six families in the suburb — and it stars the talented likes of Leah Purcell, Deborah Mailman, and Wayne Blair.
The Art of Incarceration (2021)
Stream on: Netflix
The Art of Incarceration explores the healing effects of immersing oneself in art and culture as it spotlights Australia’s history of unbalanced Indigenous incarceration rates. Focusing on some of the First Nations inmates at Fulham Correctional Centre in Victoria, it features the likes of the late actor and artist Jack Charles and designer Paul McCann, and doesn’t shy away from revealing the effects of cultural disconnection, intergenerational trauma, addiction, and institutionalisation.
Top End Wedding (2019)
Available on: SBS, Netflix
There aren’t many First Nations-led rom-coms out there, which makes Top End Wedding all the more special. Starring Miranda Tapsell, it follows hardworking lawyer Lauren, who has only been granted 10 days of leave for her wedding after her boyfriend proposes to her. Determined to get married in her hometown of Darwin, she returns to find her mother has gone AWOL — and is forced to embark on a journey that uncovers her family trauma, culture, and allows her to reconnect to community and Country.
Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)
Available on: Stan, Netflix, SBS
Some stories are hard to tell, but it’s incredibly important to tell them, and such is the case for Rabbit-Proof Fence. The heartbreaking film follows the devastating true story of three Indigenous girls stolen from their Country and community in 1931 to be trained on a mission as domestic staff. Molly, Gracie and Daisy miraculously escape, and are forced to rely on their knowledge of Country to find their way home — all the while being tracked by a white ‘Protector’ and an Indigenous tracker, played by David Gulpilil.
Beneath Clouds (2002)
Available on: Netflix
In Ivan Sen’s Beneath Clouds, the auteur examines the politics of colourism in Australia. Lena, the fair-skinned daughter of an Indigenous mother and Irish father, runs away from home, only to cross paths with Murri teen Vaughn, who has just escaped from a low-security prison to visit his dying mother. The pair have vastly differing experiences of being Blak, but as they journey together, they find common ground and understanding with each other.
All My Friends Are Racist (2021)
Available on: ABC iView
Queer social media influencer Casey and aspiring lawyer Belle have a secret ‘burn book’ wall calling out all their racist friends. But when it’s discovered, they find themselves cancelled. A modern treatise on social media, cancel culture, and racism, this series is a subversive and hilarious watch — and a quick one too, seeing as it consists of just five 10-15 minute episodes.
In My Blood It Runs (2019)
Available on: Netflix
An observational documentary following a 10-year-old Arrernte boy, Dujuan, In My Blood It Runs is a moving piece by director Maya Newell. Shot in Mparntwe (Alice Springs), Sandy Bore Homeland and the Borroloola community in the Northern Territory, Dujuan is a child-healer and a promising hunter, who speaks about three languages and is well-educated on his culture and history — and yet at his state school, he’s considered to be failing. Shining a light on the modern challenges of trying to balance one’s heritage and the pressures of white Australia, the film is shot beautifully through Dujuan’s charismatic, youthful eyes.
Wrong Kind of Black (2018)
Available on: NetflixThis four-part comedy-drama takes us back to the ’60s and ’70s as we follow aspiring DJ Boori Monty Pryor and his brother Paul. The pair navigate racial tensions and police encounters amid the dazzling era of disco. It’s based on the life and story of the real-life Pryor, a Kunggandji and Birri-gubba man, and is an entertaining but eye-opening dissection of race politics in Australia.
Charlie’s Country (2013)
Available on: Netflix
The New York Times described the titular character of Charlie’s Country as “a refugee in his homeland,” and there couldn’t be a more apt description. Considered by many to be David Gulpilil’s best film (he won the Un Certain Regard Best Actor award at Cannes for it), the Rolf de Heer film follows Charlie, a man sick of white law interfering with his ability to live on Country in the old ways — and who sets out to do so anyway. It makes for a poignant depiction of the struggle to reconcile with one’s identity in a culturally insensitive world, highlighting the issues with assimilation and necessity of cultural connection.
Total Control (2019)
Available on: ABC iView
Deborah Mailman is back again (and we love it) in this gripping series that explores what happens when an Indigenous woman is thrust into the limelight after a horrific domestic violence incident. Recruited by the prime minister as a senator, she finds herself determined to prove her potential while trying to avoid being used as a political pawn. A scathing take on Australian politics, it’s helmed by director Rachel Perkins, and if you want further evidence of how subversive it is — it’s working title was Black Bitch.
Sweet As (2017)
Available on: Amazon Prime Video
When troubled 16-year-old Indigenous girl Murra finds herself abandoned and on the cusp of being lost to the so-called ‘Child Protection’ system, her uncle Ian — a local cop — throws her a unique lifeline. She joins a Photo Safari alongside a crop of other ‘at risk’ teens, which offers her the chance to discover a new passion and connect with new friends. It makes for an easy and heartwarming watch that’s well worth your time (it won a Crystal Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, FYI).
Satellite Boy (2012)
Available on: Netflix
Another film that explores the difficulties of maintaining one’s heritage and traditions in a modern world, Satellite Boy follows 10-year-old Pete, who lives with his grandfather (David Gulpilil) in an old drive-in cinema. When Pete learns that developers plan on buying the land the drive-in is on, he and a friend set off on an epic journey to save their home.
Bran Nue Dae (2009)
Available on: Stan, Netflix, Foxtel, Binge
If you’re in need of some cheering up, a musical comedy can’t fail you — and Bran Nue Dae is no exception (NPR described it as “Aboriginal pride, with jazz hands”). Adapted from the stage show of the same name, it follows rebel teen Willie as he escapes from his Catholic boarding school to hitchhike home in the hopes of wooing his crush (played by Jessica Mauboy). Ernie Dingo, Missy Higgins, Magda Szubanski, and Deborah Mailman are also among the starry cast, each bringing their talent to this irreverent romp.
Sweet Country (2017)
Available on: Netflix, Foxtel, Binge
Set in a 1920s Northern Territory frontier, Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country sees an ageing Indigenous farmhand go on the run after shooting a white man in self-defence. Exploring racism, morality, sexism and war-inflicted PTSD, the film — based on a true story — premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize, before going on to win a number of other international awards.
Available on: SBS
Firebite might just be one of the most innovative shows this country has produced. From visionary director Warwick Thornton, it’s a fantasy-outback-adventure allegory that follows two First Nations renegades hunting down the last of the vampires that were brought to Australia by the colonisers on the First Fleet. Gory, gritty and gripping, it makes for an exhilarating watch. And if you like the idea of a fantasy take on Indigenous lore, you should also check out Cleverman on Stan.
Black Comedy (2014)
Available on: ABC iView, Stan
Steven Oliver and Nakkiah Lui are just two of the many brilliant minds behind this “sketch comedy show by Blackfellas, for everyone”. The fast-paced series doesn’t pull its punches in its skewering of white Australia, dissecting our country’s culture through a distinctly First Nations lens.
The New Boy (2023)
Available in cinemas now
The latest from Warwick Thornton — which premiered at Cannes this year — is set in the 1940s, when in the dead of night, a nine-year-old Indigenous orphan boy arrives at a remote monastery run by a renegade nun (Cate Blanchett). Inspired by Thornton’s own upbringing as an Kaytetye child in a Christian boarding school, it departs from reality with a hint of magical realism and is set to a score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
The ‘outback noir’ genre is taken to new heights in Limbo, the latest film from Ivan Sen. Shot entirely in black-and-white, which lends an eerie feel to its backdrop of Coober Pedy, the film follows a jaded detective played by Simon Baker, as he revisits the cold case of a murdered Indigenous girl. Sen told Esquire it’s an “Indigenous experience of the justice system … about these damaged people who are drawn to each other”. It recently was released in cinemas, so keep an eye out for when it’s available to stream — it’ll be worth the wait, we promise.