How The Creators of ‘True Colours’ Brought Traditional Language To The Contemporary Crime Drama
We chat to Erica Glynn and Warren H Williams about creating one of the most groundbreaking Aussie shows of 2022.
A four-part series decades in the making, True Colours follows Detective Toni Alma (Rarriwuy Hick) as she returns to her home community of Perdar Theendar to investigate the death of a young Indigenous girl found in the wreck of a car crash.
But nothing is as it seems. The case is a web entangled with stolen Aboriginal art, dark tourism, TikTok, Blakfella lore and smuggled grog.
And as if that wasn’t enough to deal with, Detective Alma also has to contend with being partnered on the case with her all too recent ex, Detective Nick Gawler (Luke Arnold). But she needs an outsider with no skin ties to those in community if she has any hope of talking to witnesses and solving the case.
A Series Long Overdue And Decades In The Making
With about one-third of its dialogue in traditional language, it’s safe to say there hasn’t been anything quite like True Colours on Aussie TV before. Following in the footsteps of Blakfella neo-noir staples like Mystery Road, Goldstone, Redfern Now and Firebite, True Colours transports the average Aussie viewer into the typically ignored, complexly precarious world of present-day remote First Nations communities.
The characters of True Colours lived in Warren H Williams’s head for years before they found their way onto the screen. “10 years ago. That’s where it started. The story is from home and a lot of the characters in True Colours were people from Home. I remember thinking about it. I couldn’t get it out of my system,” the series creator and co-writer told Junkee.
For True Colours co-creator, Erica Glynn, True Colours is a foray into new territory. “For me, crime wasn’t high on the list of things I wanted to achieve in my life,” she admits with a laugh. “But when Warren came with this idea and this idea of who had done it, I thought ‘well, that’s different, that’s unusual, that’s worth exploring because it gave us an opportunity to get right in on our community and explore a whole bunch of stuff – cultural stuff, community politics, and in such a contemporary way.
“We spoke about contemporary Indigenous culture, the ancient aspects that remain and the stuff our Mob are very good at adapting to.”
Representing The Theft Of Aboriginal Art
And indeed many aspects of contemporary Aboriginal culture, including cross-cultural issues between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples are part of True Colours DNA. Chief among these is the exploration of how traditional Aboriginal art is exploited for profit, particularly by non-Indigenous tourists. This has become an issue on a global scale. In 2019, Netflix was slammed for featuring fake Aboriginal art in its series, After Life.
Without venturing too far into spoiler territory, the fraudulent buying and selling of Aboriginal art by non-Indigenous people lie at the centre of the mysterious car crash that brings Detective Alma back home. “We could’ve done anything as the crime, but using art gave us the way to talk about Aboriginal stuff because it’s a connection. It’s a connection between the white world and the Aboriginal world,” Glynn explained.
Like any good detective story, True Colours is about noticing what’s hidden in plain sight.
But for Williams, theft of art is not just a wider cultural issue, but a personal one. “For me, it’s real because it happened to my family. One of my uncles stole my grandfather’s stuff because he was close to it. But it was sacred objects, not paintings. Thank God we had white people who recognised that. They got in touch with my family and said, ‘we just found your stuff in a museum.’” Williams says. “That’s part of True Colours story that is real to me. We made the story fiction, but the underlying story is real.”
Like any good detective story, True Colours is about noticing what’s hidden in plain sight. Many of the series’ most poignant scenes are when Detectives Alma and Gawler realise that the people and places that have the answers they’re looking for are right in front of them. “The story very much belongs to Warren’s family and we’re assuming that’s a common thing around hiding objects in plain sight like wrecked cars. We’d all heard stories around it and it is because people can’t get access to their sacred places because they belong to cattle and sheep now.”
Nothing Is Black And White
As the mystery slowly unfurls, secrets held by the colourful characters of Perdar Theendar begin to see the light. In the world Williams and Glynn have brought to life, no one’s hands are unstained, or souls unjaded by living under the post-colonial shadow of modern Australia. Non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples alike are suspects.
“That’s the cultural shift people in Alice Springs are living under. There’s a lot of movement within cultural laws because people are under pressure. No one’s rich and there are people living in poverty. You do try to bend the rules when you’re poor and you’ve got nothing and there’s no way out. We wanted to explore the greatness of our culture and the faults of it too,” Glynn explains.
Williams agrees, “[the series is] talking about how corrupt our people can become. Our people can become greedy and show sacred places for a lot of money. In a way, a lot of people can’t tell them off because they’re custodians, or owners, or story keepers, but they’re still crooks in their own way.”
It’s clear that for Glynn and Williams, sovereignty over First Nations storytelling is taking responsibility for the fair, the fowl and everything in between. Glynn reiterates, “we wanted to be real about the representation, and our people can be as corrupt as white people. We worked very hard at getting all of that right and not compromising on that stuff like calling all the white fellas the baddies. The true stories these are drawn from, they’re about Blackfellas.”
“If You’re Telling A Really Good Story, It Doesn’t Matter What Language It’s In”
This will to remain uncompromised on authenticity is what lead to the inclusion of traditional language in True Colours. “Most of it just came because everyone spoke Arrenette,” says Williams. “There are four Arrernte languages; there’s central from the Alice Springs region, Eastern, Western, Aranda which is Northern, but the one we used was Southern Aranda. Everyone speaks language anyway, you know? So it just came easy.
“For me, putting language was one of the driving forces for me to be in the screen industry,” Glynn elaborates. “I come from a place where representing Aboriginal languages is the most important thing. We haven’t ever seen Aboriginal language represented in Australian drama in this way ever. It’s been done in feature films, quite often in a historical way, and there’s little dribbles of language here and there. But this was a big effort for us to try and represent correctly the community we wanted to set the fictional story in and the only way to do that was to do it in Arrenette.”
“We haven’t ever seen Aboriginal language represented in Australian drama in this way ever.”
Ultimately, Williams and Glynn hope that True Colours inspires more First Nations language use in contemporary film and TV, as well as inclusive. “I want this to be the first of many. This can be done again with any of the 100s of languages in this country. There are languages that have been sleeping, that have been revitalised. This can all be done on screen and it’s not scary or hard if you do it the right way. If you’re telling a really good story, it doesn’t matter what language it’s in.”
The bones of True Colours narrative may be tried and tested. An estranged detective forced to return home to solve a personal case is not groundbreaking on its face, but the quiet revolution of True Colours‘ tale isn’t in its story beats, but in the perspective, language and cultural tradition from which it’s told. With this groundbreaking series, Warren Williams and Erica Glynn have bequeathed “traditional detective story” with a whole new meaning.
True Colours is streaming on SBS on Demand.
Merryana Salem (they/them) is a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian writer, critic, teacher and podcaster on most social media as @akajustmerry.