Culture / Film

A legacy like no other – 7 films that highlight the magic of actor David Dalaithngu

David Dalaithngu films

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains images and the name of a person who has died.


“I know how to walk across the land in front of a camera, because I belong there.”

After a four-year battle with lung cancer, cultural icon and creative luminary, David Dalaithngu sadly passed away on Monday evening aged 68. It's impossible to overstate the influence Dalaithngu has had on Australian film. Hailing from Arnhem land, the Yolngu man ushered in a new era, one where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders roles were given to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander actors, and Indigenous stories were told by Indigenous people.

For many of us, David was the first Aboriginal man we ever saw onscreen, be it via Storm Boy or Crocodile Dundee, acting as a mirror for communities overlooked in Australian media and film. In his wake he leaves behind a striking legacy; one that sings with creativity and a love for country.

As we mourn the loss of David Dalaithngu, here at RUSSH we're tracing his life through film and rounding up 7 movies that capture the actors onscreen magic.


Satellite Boy, 2012


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The gentle grace and unbound energy of Dalaithngu shines through in his role as Jagamarra, sole guardian and grandfather to Pete. Set in the middle of the familiar red dirt and desert heat of the Kimberely, Pete leaves Jagamarra to embark on a journey by bike, then foot, to town to save his home from a mining company.

My Name is Gulpilil, 2021


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Less film, more documentary. My Name Is Gulpilil is the work of Molly Reynolds who upon hearing about Dalaithngu's cancer diagnosis, saddled herself with the mammoth task of capturing the actor and artist in his final years. A rare portrait of an actor audiences and fans are not often afforded. The doco turned out to be David's last time on screen as he reflected on his own mortality and the life he inevitably will leave behind.


Storm Boy, 1976

A quintessential Australia film adapted from Colin Thiele's classic novel. Dalaithngu's interpretation of Fingerbone Bill, while the first of many, is the one we keep coming back to.


Walkabout, 1971


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The film where it all began. Walkabout launched teenage Dalaithngu's career and for his performance he was awarded Best Actor at Cannes. For the uninitiated and those unsure of where to begin watching David's films, it is always good advice to find your way back to the beginning.


The Tracker, 2002

The Tracker marks the first instalment of Dalaithngu and director Rolf De Heer's fruitful partnership. When it comes to the plot, the film provides another example of how a white woman's virtue is used as a vehicle to oppress Black men. And while the brutality of the officers is hard to stomach, Dalaithngu's performance as a tracker carries the characteristic grace and confidence we've come to associate with him as an actor.


Crocodile Dundee, 1986


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No one is watching Crocodile Dundee for anything that resembles fact. But for a film that played right into the hands of America's 'shrimp on the barbie' perspective of Australia, Dalaithngu holds his own with comedy that slices through disparaging stereotypes, challenging the way the rest of the world views First Nations Australians.


Rabbit-Proof Fence, 2002


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Considering that Australia is still largely a country that struggles to own up to its sordid history, Rabbit-Proof Fence was a stepping stone for many white Australians in understanding the gravity of invasion and dispossession — although, it shouldn't take a film to do so. Dalaithngu's role was paramount to driving home the nuance in this particular story, and as a skilled tracker in real life, he saved the project from being a caricature of First Nation's practices.


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