Whether it’s the time he hid from racist police in the croc-infested waters of Palm Island, or the time someone’s ear got shot off while he was DJ’ing at Melbourne’s Albion Charles Hotel, Boori Monty Pryor has more than a few amazing stories to tell about what it’s like growing up Aboriginal in Australia.
Some of these stories have now arrived on screen, thanks to Princess Pictures and ABC’s new high-end scripted digital series Wrong Kind of Black, which opened this year’s Series Mania Melbourne. Over four episodes, Pryor, along with director Catriona McKenzie and writer Nick Musgrove, reflect on how lessons from his childhood in 1960s Far-North Queensland prepared him for the discrimination that comes with being “the wrong kind of black” in a big city.
Despite a slow first episode, the series finds its footing thanks to Pryor’s natural and charming storytelling ability. As an author and educator, he’s used to sharing tales, and that’s evident in his enchantingly calm narration. Whether joking about the accidental friendship he made with a Russian mobster, talking about the trouble he got into with his brother Paul, or looking back on the worst days of his life, Pryor speaks with a wisdom and restraint that subtly underpins the events unfolding on screen.
His is one of the many performances that prove the best aspects of Wrong Kind of Black. As adult Boori, Clarence Ryan is brilliant. It’s a career-launching role for the actor, who captures Pryor’s charm and packages it in the carefree attitude of a man who, when we meet him, has begrudgingly accepted the vitriol directed at him due to the colour of his skin. As his brother, Paul, Aaron McGrath delivers a moving performance. Their relationship rests at the heart of the series, but McGrath proves best in his solo scenes, as he struggles to ignore the hate and misunderstanding Boori has grown accustomed to.
Another standout is veteran Indigenous actor Tom E. Lewis, who plays Boori’s father in what would be his last ever performance. Whether he’s joking around with his sons, or playing chicken with police officers who would love nothing more than to run him over, Lewis brings to the screen a commanding gravity that makes him a highlight of every scene he’s in. There’s no denying the Australian film and TV industry lost a true icon with his passing.
As the fifth series produced as part of Screen Australia and the ABC’s Long Story Short initiative, Wrong Kind of Black is only an hour long. While it certainly feels like Pryor has plenty more stories to tell, it’s ultimately the perfect length for the project. So neat is its summary of Pryor’s journey that a longer series would likely have felt less impactful. That’s a testament to the potential of flexible form content. Not every story needs to fit a traditional series format, nor should it be expected to in the age of streaming. Here’s hoping such content becomes more common.
Wrong Kind of Black screens on ABC and iView
on Sunday, August 5th.