Opening the door on Mabo
Deborah Mailman as Bonita and Jimi Bani as Eddie Mabo in Mabo on ABC1. Picture: Supplied.

Actor Jimi Bani remembers his father crying on the day in 1992 when the news came that fellow Torres Strait Islander Eddie Mabo had won his battle for land rights.

"I remember this big thing that happened and my dad crying and saying 'I wish uncle Eddie was here'," Bani said.

Eddie Mabo had died of cancer five months before the High Court decision, which overturned the notion of terra nullius and opened the way for Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders to claim title to land they traditionally inhabited.

At the time, Bani was a young Islander busy running amok and the politics of the court decision meant little to him. Now, having made the movie Mabo, he knows the story intimately.

In the title role, he has walked in the footsteps of Eddie Koiki Mabo, from his early days on Murray Island to his exile from the government-run island, moving to Queensland to work on the railways, working as a unionist, struggling to begin a school for Aboriginal and Islander children and the beginning of the court case.

Deborah Mailman (The Sapphires, Offspring) plays Mabo's wife Bonita in the movie, which is produced by Blackfella Films (First Australians) and directed by Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae).

The telemovie is as much a love story as it is one of political activism and, on many levels, Bonita is as much a hero as her husband.

There are many links between both the actors and their roles. Like Bonita, Mailman comes from Queensland and Bani, though he grew up on Thursday Island, is connected to the Mabo family.

"My dad is from Mabuiag in the western part of the Torres Islands and my mum is from Darnley Island in the east and that is Murray Island's sister island," Bani said. "My mum and uncle Eddie are cousins."

Then there is The Sapphires: Bani was in the stage version of The Sapphires, both for the Black Swan Theatre Company and when it went to the UK and Korea, while Mailman stars in the film. They will work on Perkins' next project, the eagerly awaited Redfern Now, the ABC series that has been developed by Jimmy McGovern (The Street, Cracker).

Bani says another connection is that like uncle Eddie, he has a tremendously supportive partner, Idelia. He was in Cairns playing semi-professional basketball when she saw an advertisement for actors for the 2006 island series RAN (remote area nurse) and she pushed him to apply.

He won a role and by the time filming was finished was hooked on acting. But he realised he had to take it to another level and enrolled at the WA Academy of Performing Arts.

"I thought Perth would be perfect for myself, I wouldn't have survived in Sydney coming from up on the island," he laughed. "And I loved it, it was the most perfect thing that I have ever done."

He has worked steadily since graduating, with a major role in the recent ABC series The Straits. When we speak, he has spent the day with the Sydney Theatre Company workshopping a play based on Kate Grenville's The Secret River.

But that all fades into the background when he speaks about Mabo, which he describes as both a huge emotional journey and a role it was an honour and a privilege to play.

"The best thing that happened was that we had auntie Bonita and Gail (Eddie's daughter) on the set with us when we were in Townsville," he said.

"Don't get me wrong, it was also very scary, especially when I put on the beard." As his character Eddie ages during the movie, Bani dons a beard which gives him a striking resemblance to the real man.

"On set I had to get one of my colleagues to warn (the family) that I am coming out," he said. "They all got to remember that it is just a fake beard because it looks so close to uncle Eddie himself."

He said that Bonita Mabo had now seen the movie. He had been nervous as he waited for a call afterwards.

"Gail rang and she thanked me and Deb and said 'Mum cried, we loved it, thank you very much for bringing dad alive'. My hair is rising right now thinking about it, it was so overwhelming."

Mabo airs June 10 at 8.30pm on ABC1.

The West Australian

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