Uproar is a Political Coming-of-Age Story that Stands as a Triumph for Aotearoa New Zealand Cinema

Comments made on the racism still inherent in New Zealand Aotearoa by Taika Waititi incited a lot of push back. Isn’t New Zealand just the pleasant little country where Peter Jackson made The Lord of The Rings? Sure, there were films like Niki Caro’s Whale Rider and Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors, but New Zealand is just a place where everyone calls you “bro” and they say fish and chips in a weird accent. Relationships between Pākehā and Aotearoa’s indigenous people are surely fine? There is no lingering stain of colonialism. Tāme Iti and many others would disagree.

Uproar by Paul Middleditch and Hamish Bennett is set in 1981 in Dunedin. Josh Waaka (Julian Dennison), a biracial seventeen-year-old is keeping his head down as much as he can. He observes that if in 1981 New Zealand were a television show it would be The Incredible Hulk. Mild mannered Bruce Banner on the outside but ready to turn green and be set off. The inciting incident is the South African Rugby team the Springboks coming to play in the era of apartheid.

Rugby defines Josh’s life regardless of how he feels about it. His deceased father, Pita, was an international champion which is how he met Josh’s British mother Shirley (Minnie Driver). Josh’s older brother Jamie (James Rolleston) was a feted player until he suffered an injury. Josh’s attendance at the local private school, St Gilbert’s is predicated on his father and brother’s successes. Their “brownness” was tolerated so long as they were bringing glory to the school. It goes even further because since Pita’s death the school has employed Shirley as a cleaner. St Gilbert’s own the family and they had better repay the perceived debt of kindness they have bestowed on them through privileged Pākehā “grace”.

The primary issue is that Josh could not be less interested in Rugby. He’s bullied relentlessly for his body shape by the boys on the team. He hides in the library eating his lunch alone. The only person who positively notices the boy who prefers to sit than to stand up at the school is Brother Madigan (Rhys Darby) a drama teacher who sees potential in Josh’s talent for performance.

Outside of school Josh cares for Jamie in the most caring and chaotic way imaginable. Lifting his brother to do physical therapy while wearing an Olivia Newton-John inspired leotard. He helps to keep the financially unstable family afloat by doing leaflet-drops (Shirley’s second job). His closest friend is Grace Ioane (Jada Fa’atui) a Samoan immigrant. Their relationship is jocular and teasing and based on a shared sense of otherness. One day while Josh is doing the leaflet-drops he sees a small protest walking the suburban streets of Dunedin. In that protest is Samantha (Erana James) and her grandmother Tui (Mabelle Dennison). Samantha calls out to him as “pram boy” and tells him to join. He says he prefers to sit, and Grace leaves him to join the protest which is booed from the front porches of Pākehā homes where they use the usual rhetoric of “go back to where you came from,” and extreme racial slurs.

While Prime Minister Robert Muldoon was on television attending the wedding of Diana and Charles a deep well of resentment was brewing for him allowing the Springboks to play in New Zealand. Few countries allowed South Africa to compete in sporting events, even the equally internally racist (and Rugby obsessed) Australia refused to let the team even refuel their jets. Mass protests sprung up in major New Zealand cities. Armed riot police were trained.

It was never supposed to reach Josh. Certainly not in Dunedin, a place known for mostly being “very scenic.” Josh becomes interested in what’s happening but from a position as an outsider. Due to his biracial status, he’s lost touch with whānau as neither Shirley nor Pita’s family accepted the relationship. He’s never going to be Jamie. He’s also never going to be Samantha who is utterly committed to disruption and reminding the school that their glorious buildings stand on Māori land and were built by Māori hands, yet their hallowed halls are for mostly white students, unless there they play rugby.

Josh begins to find his own voice via attendance at the local Māori hall and his growing understanding that he is Māori, and inside that there is immense power. He also learns that he is indeed a strong actor through Madigan’s guidance and tutelage. He wants to go to NIDA, but Shirley won’t have a bar of it. Acting is not a career and where would they get the money from? Better to stay close with her and Jamie (who is now coaching the school rugby team). Better to stay and be safe, to keep Jamie safe and not suicidal. Better to keep his head down.

Josh realises how little he knows about his own heritage. Tui calmly explains to many white activists (speaking for, not to, Māori people) that they can’t just do performative resistance. They must not be violent, but the Māori have been dispossessed since Te Tiriti o Waitangi where they lost almost all their land to the Crown. In 1981, over a hundred and forty years later of the 3.4 million acres that were taken only 80K have been returned. It is only five years since Whina Cooper marched from Te Hāpua to Wellington to protest land loss.

Despite his initial reservations Josh does get involved and goes along to film the Molesworth Street clash in Wellington. It is the first time he ever sees a Haka as protest. It mesmerises him for a second until all hell breaks loose and the riot police backed up by white nationalist groups beat the protesters, including Tui. Josh gets caught in the fray; Samantha is arrested. His face turns up in the newspapers.

Josh’s life is falling apart and he’s afraid he’s ruining Jamie’s life too. His relationship with Grace seems over, Samantha is dealing with Tui’s hospitalisation, and all the while he’s expected to get out on that damn school rugby field and play (the match is played to the famous British hymn ‘Jerusalem’ which will give one an idea how much the sport is revered).

After the school’s win two particularly violent players burn down the meeting hall. Racist and simpering Coach Bullivant (Byron Coll) gives all the players an alibi to ensure they are safe from the police. Principal Slane (Mark Mitchinson) ensures the code of silence.

Deciding to apply for NIDA via video (he could not go to the audition because of the match) Josh does a monologue that speaks to his pain. Combining a monologue from Foreskin’s Lament and moving into a Haka. This is Josh trying to reconcile his identities, his scream of confusion – his personal lament.

Uprise is a deeply political coming-of-age story which is also balanced with humour and wit. Julian Dennison is spectacular as Josh, and Rhys Darby is giving one of his best performances in years – combining his natural talent as a comedian with his ability to mine vulnerability and care. James Rolleston (the boy from Taika Waititi’s Boy) is a natural fit to play Dennison’s older brother. Excellent supporting work from Minnie Driver, Mabelle Dennison, and especially Erana James as the spitfire Samantha.

In Uprise Paul Middleditch and Hamish Bennett seem to have picked up where Taika Waititi left off in creating indie films in Aotearoa which speak with the voices of the young to work out what being Māori, Samoan, Islander, or biracial means. It’s a history lesson delivered by some of the country’s foremost comic and dramatic talents. It is also little wonder that people such as Rachel House were story consultants on the script along with co-writer Sonia Whiteman.

Josh says, “We all have our stories. They’re not there to pull us down. They’re there to push us forward.” Uproar is a story set in the past that continues to push Māori stories forward – a funny, kind, warm, and bittersweet story about acceptance and rebellion. Uproar is a triumph for Aotearoa New Zealand cinema.

Directors: Paul Middleditch, Hamish Bennett

Cast: Julian Dennison, Minnie Driver, Rhys Darby

Writers: Hamish Bennett, Sonia Whiteman, Paul Middleditch

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Curb on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!