Directed by Tony Krawitz
Documentary, 2011, 78 minutes.
On the morning of November 19, 2004, Cameron Doomadgee, an indigineous resident of Palm Island in tropical Queensland, was arrested for swearing at Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley and taken to the local police station. 45 minutes later, he was found dead in his cell. Later, he was found to have had four broken ribs and a ruptured liver and spleen. The police claimed he had tripped on a step. It is perhaps the most high profile case of an Aboriginal death in custody on record, and certainly one of the most complicated.
Doomadgee and Hurley were the same age — 36 at the time of the incident. In some ways what happened reads as a story of two men from very different walks of life who cross paths and cannot help but bring their different social circumstances and history to bear upon the situation. Those histories, and the timeline of events following Doomadgee’s death, are the subject of Tony Krawitz’s documentary The Tall Man. The film aired on SBS in 2011 and is based on the book of the same name by Chloe Hooper.
The film puts the audience in the position of a jury as it follows the events following Doomadgee’s death and by the end we form a fairly clear impression of what happened, given the available evidence. But The Tall Man is equally concerned with how those affected have made sense of what happened and what the sequence of tragic events tells us about race relations in Australia. This is where the film is most powerful.
It is hard to divorce the present from the past, or to isolate one incident from the flow of events surrounding it. For the residents of Palm Island, Doomadgee’s death in custody is part of a much larger and longer story. Palm Island itself has a dubious 100-year history as a church-run mission — a ‘dumping ground for recalcitrants’ as Tony Koch, a reporter for The Australian, describes it during an interview. Drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and a troubled relationship with the law are facts of life. Following Doomadgee’s death and the resulting criminal trial, Doomadgee’s cellmate hanged himself, as did Doomadgee’s son. Hurley was reassigned.
In the film’s emotional moments we see that underneath it all, race relations in Australia still turn on matters of basic respect and acknowledgment — the tenuous trust slowly and carefully woven can be snapped again all too easily. When the first coroner’s report found Domadgee had likely been beaten up by Hurley, Doomadgee’s de facto partner Tracy says ‘Did she say that? That means she believe us eh?’
This fragility and tragic optimism has the effect of making the scenes of police solidarity seem uglier and more frightening than they already are. ‘A police officer, one of us, has been singled out for special treatment’ we hear someone announce incredulously at a police rally in support of Hurley. Later, the police union lawyer characterises the story as a struggle between ‘two minorities’ — the police force and the indigenous community — an example of privileged distress if ever there were one.
It is hard to know what justice looks like in this case. Hurley, who had spent 20 years in indigenous townships, was friends with key indigenous figures and deeply involved in the community. It is hard to see his character, or the incident, as simply being about race. But he was a tall man, and by all accounts he used his bulk to subdue people when he felt the need arose. In this case, as the victim’s lawyer explains it, ‘he overpowered this man for swearing at him, and killed him.’
An accident, perhaps, of sorts. Perhaps there is justice too, of sorts, to be found in the coroner’s reports. But the lies, tainted evidence and police collusion that took place after Doomadgee’s death were no accident. They are presented as fairly obvious, indeed blatant, abuses of power, and what is the story of race relations in Australia if not a story of precisely this abuse of power?
It’s hard to see what could have been achieved in real terms by sending Hurley to prison. But whatever we may think of Hurley himself, there is a sense in which somebody in authority got away with murder, and the whole force came out in support. ‘What’s that say to me or any other indigenous person in this state?’ reflects community leader (and, for a time, Hurley’s friend) Murrandoo Yanner. ‘Let alone the whites, ’cause they should be scared too’.