Guest writer Tasha James, who leads the ABC Archives Indigenous Unit, tells us why she adores Australian actor Deborah Mailman.
Growing up in regional NSW as a Koori kid in the 1980s and 1990s, there was never anyone that looked like me or my family that I could relate to on TV.
As a teenager, like many people my age in Australia, Home and Away was a favourite of mine but I could never understand why they didn’t have Aboriginal people on the show.
It wasn’t until I was in my 20s in the early 2000s that I saw myself reflected in a show on TV. That show was The Secret Life of Us (2001–2006).
It was based on a group of 20-somethings in Melbourne, living out the same life as anyone in their 20s did at the time. But this show was different.
I could identify with one of the characters: Kelly Lewis, who was played by Deb Mailman. Finally, an Indigenous person playing a role, just being themselves and not typecast as an Aboriginal stereotype.
This was the first time I had encountered Deb Mailman and it was love at first sight.
Here is Deb in a scene from season 2, episode 6, where she's interviewing for a new job, but still has boyfriend troubles on her mind:
Her vivacious character always shone through the screen in the role of Kelly and she had me addicted. I made sure to watch the show every week, swapping stories with my girlfriends and debriefing play-by-play.
After The Secret Life of Us, Deb’s career took off. She was awarded Most Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series at the Logies in 2002 and 2004 for her role as Kelly and became a household name.
I remember feeling so proud when she won the first Logie and was recognised for her talent, before going on to win another soon after.
Deborah has now won more Logie awards than anyone in that category and is nominated again in 2022, for Total Control.
These films highlighted the injustices of past government policies impacting Australia’s First Peoples. They are examples of Indigenous stories being told by Indigenous people and rewriting the Australian narrative from an Indigenous perspective, breaking down the stereotypical perceptions of First Nations culture and reframing Australia’s story.
When interviewed for alexandraspring.com about her role as Gail in The Sapphires, Deb said 'This is the work I want to do because it’s about something that is important to me and to my people'.
I have great respect for Deb for choosing the roles she does. So many of them highlight issues that affect our Indigenous communities. In her latest small screen program Total Control, she plays the leading role as an Aboriginal politician.
Here is a scene from the final episode of Total Control season one, where we see Deb's raw emotions come through. Warning - this clip contains spoilers:
When talking to the National Indigenous Times in 2019, Deb stated, 'I think what’s really important is that this story is being informed by a blackfella creative team. The writers are black, the directors are black.'
She continued, 'We’re the best people to tell the story and I think it’s really important that as Indigenous people we get to see shows on our screens that reflect who we are as communities and what is important to us'.
Reflecting on her illustrious career, the various roles she has played on small and big screens and on stage, her most outstanding performance in my opinion remains Nona in her debut film, Radiance (1998).
I rewatched Radiance recently and only now fully appreciated Deb's brilliance in that role. She was so believable as the young and free party girl and her performance is a preview of the great success to come for her as an actress.
Deb Mailman makes me feel so proud as an Aboriginal woman. Having her represent our people in such a way that she's not only a role model for Indigenous people, but for everyone, is a real source of pride.
I look forward to seeing what is next for her. Bravo Deb!
Tasha James leads the Indigenous Unit of the ABC Archives. She is a Wiradjuri woman who is passionate about surfacing Indigenous stories and voices that are held within archives.
Main image: Deborah Mailman in a scene from The Sapphires (2012). Courtesy Goalpost Pictures. NFSA title: 1068447.