Palm Island, off the east coast of Queensland, is a beautiful location and a tropical idyll. But looks can be deceiving, and when one of the indigenous locals died in police custody in 2004, all kinds of ugly were revealed, extending across to the mainland and the heart of the Queensland Police Force, and back to the island's aboriginal penal colony past.
Cameron Doomadgee was arrested for swearing at police officer, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, and a mere 45 minutes later died in a cell at the Palm Island Police Station. Despite suffering injuries consistent with those sustained in a car crash - including four broken ribs and a liver almost cleaved in half - Hurley maintained that Doomadgee was never beaten and that his injuries were sustained in a fall whilst being taken from the paddy wagon to the cell where he died.
But from the moment Doomadgee was found dead, the police investigation was compromised, and standard procedure ignored. A miscarriage of justice which began with the arrest of Cameron Doomadgee (for swearing at a police officer; offensive but not really an arrest-worthy offense), reverberated long after his death: Doomadgee's son, and the man who shared that fatal cell with the deceased, both committed suicide not long after.
A Coronial Inquiry into Doomadgee's death ruled Hurley responsible but the Queensland Department of Police Prosecutions not only reversed that decision but ruled the death an accident. When, at the behest of the Queensland government in 2007, that decision by the DPP was to be reinvestigated, the Queensland Police Department came out in force in support of Hurley with strike action a constant threat.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, no one from QLD Police would agree to appear in The Tall Man, Tony Krawitz's doco based on Chloe Hooper's non-fiction book, which recounts all of these events with clarity. Hurley's defense is left to video footage of the investigation, court recordings of Hurley's testimony, and character references from (white) locals from his previous postings.
Interviews with family, friends and the partner of Doomagdee paint a portrait of an imperfect but no less loved man while also capturing the anger and, as much as film can, their grief. And make no mistake, The Tall Man will anger and sadden you in equal measure. Whether Doomadagee's death was racially motivated or not, you can't help but feel ashamed of the ongoing tensions between black and white Australia, as well as those between Aboriginals and police.
Naively, I believed that aboriginal deaths in custody had come to a head in Australia in the early 1990s. The Tall Man acts as a sobering reminder that even in the 2000s, Australia still has a long way to go.