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REVIEW: Robbie Hood (2019)

“My mum always said, stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves.”

Robbie Hood is worlds apart from the classic heroics of the greenwood, but the raw humanity of the series shares its heart with the legend. Set in the sometimes-harsh, always-beautiful Alice Springs in the heart of Australia, the short series follows 13-year-old Indigenous kid Robbie (Pedrea Jackson), confident yet gentle and unassuming, the foul-mouthed and coarse Georgia Blue (Jordan Johnson) and the always-hungry, giant and lanky Little Johnny (Levi Thomas), kids known around the town for their thieving and tomfoolery, but with hearts ultimately in the right place. The series takes its loose framework from the legend, obviously in its lead characters’ names, but primarily through the charitable actions of Robbie and his friends, undermining the townspeople that stand in the way of what they perceive to be justice and equality. There is no Sheriff here, instead the role is filled by the by-the-book, yet kind and compassionate, policeman Shane (Dan Falzon); the Marian role is played here by Shane’s adoptive daughter, Mim (Tiara Doolan), a girl a few years older than Robbie, who considers her, “the most beautiful coconut [he's] ever seen; white on the inside, tough and black on the outside.” There is no constant threat, no regular enemy, save that of the plight of the impoverished Indigenous families of Alice Springs, the prejudice they face from both out-and-out racist members of the community and even supposed allies.

Robbie lives in a share house, that is to say, with many members of his extended family, a mix of both children and older women, along with Robbie’s father, alcoholic Bob (Andy Golledge), as well as Little Johnny and Blue. The six 10-minute episodes are sharp vignettes, skilfully exploring quite confronting and immediate social issues plaguing the Northern Territory today while still focusing on telling the story of Robbie and his friends. The opening episode concerns the lack of food in the share house, with Robbie considering stealing a joint of meat before settling for a cheap, single tin. Money is always lacking in the home, either to buy food or credits for the power meter, largely due to Bob’s spending of the money on alcohol. Robbie often goes to extremes to counter the gang’s problems; on the issue of meat, he steals his father’s rifle and Blue shoots a cow, and the whole family feasts in the lounge room.

The extreme solutions are dramatic, but offer a form of vicarious justice for the viewer. In one episode, set during a blistering heat wave, a clearly-racist public pool guard ups the price of admission, knowing most Indigenous kids won’t have enough money to get in while greeting white families friendlily. The local water hole is off-limits, contaminated with bacteria; to restore it, Robbie steals a drum of chlorine to kill the bacteria, allowing the native kids to swim there for free. The series doesn’t pull punches with portraying the town's racial divide, a shamefully real topic in any Australian community but particularly in remoter communities such as Alice Springs. Many white characters display various degrees of dismissal to Indigenous characters, even Mim’s adoptive mother, despite having an Indigenous daughter. Most memorable was the character of Eileen (Teigan McCarty), a foster carer with a new-wave, hippy-ish lifestyle and fashion sense, who even wears an Indigenous flag pin on her overalls. She repeatedly says how hard life must be for the three lead kids, having to ‘share beds with dogs’ and not being able to eat their ‘bush tucker.’ It highlights the very present ignorance of true Indigenous issues and modes of assistance in the larger community. The series doesn't sugar-coat the social divide in Australia, showing the inadequacies of even with those who claim to champion Indigenous causes.

The series appears on our screens this week for a reason; July 7-14 is NAIDOC Week in Australia, where we celebrate Indigenous cultures of both the mainland and the Torres Strait, their contributions to modern Australian life, and acknowledge the tens of thousands of years of unbroken civilisation present in Indigenous communities across the country. While the series doesn’t shy away from the coarseness of the racial divide, it celebrates Indigenous culture, too; wonderfully, Robbie’s grandmother (Audrey Martin) only speaks in her regional language, even when other characters speak to her in English. Unfortunately rare on Australian TV, it's great to see that Robbie's love interest isn't his white female friend, but Mim, another Indigenous kid actually darker than him, which sounds trivial but for representation on Australian TV is actually pretty important. The amount of mixed-race kids and families in the community is great to see, in fact it's rare to see a family that is entirely white, save for posh, snooty families. It's important for an Australian family series to portray a large Indigenous community as not only worthy of and grateful for help, but in getting that help from members of their own community. Robbie represents the best and the true face of our country.

The series contains a handful, though not many, of parallels to the Robin Hood tales that formed its rough structure. Every episode is bookended with Bob playing his guitar and singing a smooth, melancholy ballad, making this reviewer think of a less-wholesome Allan a’Dale; the lyrics refer to the plots of the episodes themselves, similar to the sung teasers before each of Richard Greene’s episodes in the late 1950s. Mim, while not existing in a world of nobles and castles, is still given an air of prestige; while not a nobleman’s daughter, she is Shane’s, the cop who keeps an eye on the town, keeping that rough hierarchical structure to her family. Blue takes her cues from Will Scarlett, the colour in the name and wearing it each episode. The robbing the rich and giving to the poor takes on a new angle; the latter is certainly in place, but rather than robbing those better off, it’s more breaking the law – killing a cow, breaking into a home, stealing supplies – that offsets these actions. They are never selfish and are often a more balanced swap, or correction. The final episode, set at Christmas, sees Robbie having to find new homes for his dog’s litter of pups; the trio break into homes, taking a present from each but replacing it with a puppy, gifting the kids of the town, both in their impoverished neighbourhood and more well-off suburbs, with the best Christmas present. For their part, each of the stolen presents are given to the kids at their share house – everybody wins.

Robbie Hood reimagines the spirit of Robin Hood and applies it to contemporary Australia in an important way, shying away from the cities to tell a very immediate story of adaptability and kindness in a remote community. The realities of the impoverished Alice Springs don’t serve to push the characters down, but to contextualise and cushion Robbie’s less than legal actions, while showing that there is hope in these communities. The characters are a very realistic portrayal of youth in rural Australia, with the faults in both them and the adults around them a sharp reflection of the truth. Ultimately, the message of Robbie Hood is not to take people at face value, for beneath the veneer of criminality and abandonment can lie a cry for help – Robbie hears this call. There is plenty of fuel for these characters and particularly this format, the simple yet triumphant righting of wrongs in an Indigenous-heavy community. Let's hope there's a longer, full series or film coming to our screens soon!

Robbie Hood is streaming now on SBS On Demand.

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