Uncle Jack Charles, Indigenous actor and activist, dies aged 79 | Culture
Indigenous actor, musician, artist and activist Uncle Jack Charles has died aged 79.
His publicist confirmed on Tuesday morning that Charles suffered a stroke and died at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.
Beloved elder Boon Wurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, Woiwurrung and Yorta Yorta was bid farewell by his family during a smoking ceremony at the hospital.
“We are so proud of all he has accomplished in his remarkable life – elder, actor, musician, potter, activist, mentor, a familiar name and voice loved by all – as evidenced by his many awards, including the NAIDOC Male Elder of the Year,” the statement read.
“He will live on in our hearts and memories and through his many roles on screen and on stage.”
On Tuesday, Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney said Charles was “a groundbreaking storyteller and activist who brought people together with his warmth and grace, never shy about his past and who he was.”
“[He] offered a window for many Australians to see the lingering pain of survivors of the Stolen Generations and inspired people with her strength of character and resilience,” she said in a statement.
On Twitter, rapper Briggs paid tribute, “You’ve never met a warmer, funnier, friendlier soul,” he wrote. “Uncle Jack and Uncle Arch [Archie Roach] will be in good company wherever they are.
Born in 1943, Charles was a survivor of the Stolen Generations. Speaking to the Guardian Australia’s Full Story podcast, he said of his birth: ‘I was supposed to be taken from my mum’s womb directly by the Aboriginal protection mob, placed in a baby town mission… But This does not happen. [My mother] managed to get me out [of hospital].”
Four months later, he was picked up by the state and taken to a city mission, where he lived until he was two years old. He was later transferred to a boys’ home, where he suffered child sexual abuse.
In April this year, Charles was the first witness to tell his story as part of Victoria’s Aboriginal Truth Commission. He was the only First Nations child at home and grew up believing he was an orphan. “I wasn’t even told I was indigenous – I had to find out on my own,” he told the commission.
When he was 17, he heard his mother was alive and living in Swan Hill. When he passed the news on to his adoptive mother, he was removed from foster care and placed in juvenile detention. “I remember crying myself to sleep,” he recalls.
Charles endured several incarcerations for burglary and drug offenses in his youth, and at times struggled with heroin addiction and coming to terms with his sexuality.
In a 2014 interview with Guardian Australia, he said he had avoided a jail cell for more than ten years. “When I last walked out of prison, I walked out a self-proclaimed ‘lore’ man. I knew I had knowledge to share,” he said.
In 1971, with Bob Maza, Charles co-founded Australia’s first Aboriginal theater group, Nindethana, at the Pram Factory in Melbourne.
“Once the industry realized there were aborigines playing aborigines, they had to stop blacking out white people to play aborigines,” he said in a recent video for NITV. “It was a big wake-up call for the arts industry.”
The following year he was passed over for the role of Aboriginal detective Boney on the Australian television series of the same name. The role went to New Zealand actor James Laurenson, who wore black makeup for the role.
Charles made a name for himself over five decades, in films such as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Bedevil, Blackfellas, Tom White and Pan.
Most recently, Charles has appeared in the horror drama series Wolf Creek and the ABC television drama series Cleverman and the ABC comedy Preppers.
In 2015 he was named Victorian Senior Australian of the Year; that night he was denied a ride home from Docklands unless he paid the taxi driver in advance.
Two years earlier he had been turned away by a Sydney taxi driver whom Charles had called to take him to his performance at the Belvoir Theatre.
Charles continued until his death to advocate for the rights of young Aboriginal men in custody.
In 2019, Charles called on the Victorian government to establish regional Aboriginal community centers to address the rise in incarceration of young Aboriginal men. “We must stop the floods of young people entering our cells and prisons,” he said. “When they get there, there are three police officers assigned to a prisoner, which makes him bossy – it’s hard to reach out to anyone when they have such anger towards the system and the police.”
In 2014, Charles became the first Indigenous recipient of a Green Room Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2019 he was recognized by the Australian Council with a Red Ocher Lifetime Achievement Award as well.
His memoir – Jack Charles: Born-Again Blakfella – was published in 2020, co-written with Namila Benson.
In July, he was named Male Senior of the Year at Naidoc Week.
Assembly of First Peoples of Victoria Co-Chair Marcus Stewart said Uncle Jack left a powerful and strong legacy of overcoming trauma, loss and pain with humor, grace and resilience. “Uncle Jack lived an amazing life,” said Taungurung Nation man Nira illim bulluk. “They couldn’t hold him back, he persisted against all odds overcoming every challenge thrown at him.”
Actor David Wenham described him as a “great actor, a great social activist, a great human being”. Singer and actor David Campbell called him “a true Australian legend”.
Magda Szubanski wrote that she was devastated to hear the news. “He was just the absolute best and it’s such a loss. RIP sweetie. Author Anita Heiss wrote, ‘The beauty of your wit and the gift of your storytelling will live on forever.’
Greens leader Adam Bandt also paid tribute on Twitter: “What a life. What a storyteller. An unforgettable spirit, energy, generosity and courage.
The Guardian has been granted permission to use his name and likeness.