Empire of illusions

film censorship, eugenics and Aboriginal spectatorship in Australia's Northern Territory 1928-1950

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


The rapid spread of cinema throughout the British colonies in the 1920s was regarded as a major threat to the stability of the empire. Following the lead of the British Colonial Office, the Australian federal government introduced the censorship of films specifically for Indigenous audiences. This policy was implemented by the Commonwealth Censorship Board headed by W. Cresswell O’Reilly, a moral crusader and fervent advocate of eugenics. In 1929, this experimental prohibition commenced in the Northern Territory where it was enforced by Doctor Cecil Cook, the Chief Protector of Aborigines. Also, a passionate eugenicist, his racial philosophy differed radically from that of O’Reilly’s. This article examines the censorship of films specifically for Indigenous audiences between 1928 and 1950. It investigates how the proscribing process was informed by competing eugenicist principles and will argue that the federal intervention into Aboriginal spectatorship was an attempt to further regulate and control their lives and was used to aid racial and social engineering. It also explores Aboriginal spectator responses to film and argues that during this period the cinema gave rise to one of the first Indigenous urban cultural practices.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)711-728
Number of pages18
JournalHistorical Journal of Film, Radio and Television
Issue number4
Early online date3 May 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2 Oct 2018


Cite this