Crime fiction, especially murder mysteries, is often used as a way to hold a mirror up to society, showcasing themes of violence, corruption and racism to varying degrees of success. For Ziggy Ramo, what feels incredibly poignant about Stan’s new series Black Snow, is that it’s holding that mirror up to Australian society and highlighting a community whose history is “completely unknown, completely forgotten [and] completely denied.”
Although Black Snow is based on a fictional story, the central idea of a South Sea Islander woman in Far North Queensland being murdered is, unfortunately, not much of a reach. Australia is currently experiencing a crisis of missing or murdered Indigenous women, and yet, hardly anyone talking about it.
As much as crime shows can sometimes be useful in raising awareness of violence against women, they are almost always white-focused. This means the stories of Blak and brown women missing in Australia are left in the dark, never to be told.
Black Snow is the first show in Australia, that I’ve seen, to make a genuine effort to tell these stories in an authentic way. From the actors to the writing, the music to the setting, Black Snow unapologetically shows how grief impacts First Nations and South Sea Islander communities.
Lifehacker Australia had the immense pleasure to talk to music sensation Ziggy Ramo, who plays Zeke in the show and also co-created the score, about all things Black Snow, South Sea Islander representation and being a part of the creative process of a pivotal series.
What is Black Snow about?
The Stan original show follows a group of high schoolers working on a time capsule for their town in Ashford, North Queensland in 1994. However, one week before the capsule is buried, Isabel Baker (Talijah Blackman-Corowa) is murdered.
The small town is shocked, and grief fills Isabel’s Australian South Sea Islander community as the case is never solved, and a killer is never found.
Skip forward twenty-five years, and the time capsule is going to be opened, but when it is, a letter from Isabel sheds new light on her murder. Detective Sergeant James Cormack (Travis Fimmel) from Queensland’s Cold Case Unit arrives in the town to restart the search for the killer.
The power of representation
Black Snow is the screen debut of Ramo, and there’s a very good reason for that.
“The kind of roles that were out there for Indigenous South Sea Islander men were kind of few and far between so for me, I kind of was called more into the music space because, you know, I could write the roles,” Ramo explained.
“I always wanted to get back into it but was just always waiting for the right thing and then, when Black Snow kind of came across [to me], it just felt exactly like the thing I’d been waiting for.”
Watching Stan’s Black Snow as an Indigenous person myself, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride because, finally, Australian television was hiring First Nations creatives to tell First Nations stories.
Seeing Ramo, someone I’ve looked up to for a long time, alongside Blackman-Corowa and other incredible South Sea Islander and Indigenous actors was impactful. It felt powerful, and it felt rebellious. Not because we shouldn’t have shows like this, but because it’s a mainstream show that’s so unapologetically Blak.
For Ramo, who is Wik on his father’s Indigenous side and South Sea Islander and Solomon Islander from Malaita on the other, Black Snow was something he never thought would exist.
“It’s hard to describe [the significance] but it has felt like a lifelong journey,” Ramo said, “Being able to have that representation and be part of that representation is something that I don’t take lightly.”
“I feel like I’m so overjoyed, honestly, that we get to see ourselves, because we go through so much of our time here feeling not seen, not heard. So, to be able to not only do that but on this kind of platform, on this kind of scale, with this kind of scope. It just feels like we’re getting to yell from the mountaintops.”
When Zeke first enters the show, he is singing a hymn in front of the church congregation in language, which, again, is rare to see on mainstream television. For Ramo, it meant the world to him.
“It was a great privilege because I grew up not talking my ancestral language, so then to have an opportunity to play a character that had access to their ancestral language, it was very healing and confronting in both ways,” Ramo said.
“It was so powerful. That was my first day on set that we filmed that and it just felt like the perfect way to kind of come into things. It was a very special moment.”
More than just a score
Not only does Ramo play Zeke, a young immigrant worker from Vanuatu, but he also co-created the show’s score.
In fact, when I spoke to Ramo, he was sitting in a gallery and studio where he and Jed Palmer were still working on the score for the final episode of Black Snow.
There’s a certain power in being able to create the score for a show, especially a thriller like Stan’s Black Snow. Every detail has to perfectly align with the dialogue and scene to help build tension or portray emotions like grief, sadness, and excitement.
But when you watch Black Snow, you’ll know that this is more than just a score to another crime show. The music is telling different stories that are interwoven with the show and often implied but never expressed.
Ramo flew to Vanuatu with Kaylene Butler, a producer on the show, to record song lines and instruments to add another layer of authenticity.
“I think for me, it was so important that not only were we seen, but we were also heard. I really felt motivated to have this three-dimensional representation so there [would be] a real authenticity and really ground Black Snow in the South Sea Islander experience,” Ramo explained.
“Something I’m so proud of is [the score]. It’s really distinct and it’s really specific and I think that’s what the hope was for Black Snow to sound like, us, you know?”
Butler is a direct descendant of a chief from Vanuatu who was stolen and brought to Australia to work in sugarcane fields, not dissimilar to the one Black Snow is set in. Butler also served as the lead consultant and educator to the entire production staff to ensure the story was being told correctly and with respect and care.
When we talk about representation, this is what we mean. Not just having South Sea Islander people act in shows or movies about them, but also behind the scenes, working on bringing their stories to life.
Telling a denied story
Australia has a very dark and often untold history with blackbirding, where South Sea Islanders would be lured, tricked or kidnapped into working on plantations in Queensland.
Stan’s Black Snow centres itself around this experience and the community whose ancestors were forced to work in the sugarcane plantations in North Queensland.
“I think Black Snow is really showing us that there is this untold story. There are forgotten people that were used to establish [plantations] and however the language we want to use, if it’s called Blak slavery, it’s called Blak slavery, but there’s this whole chapter within Australian history that is just completely unknown, completely forgotten, completely denied,” Ramo explained.
“I think Black Snow just shines a light on that community.”
As Ramo told me, everyone in Australia is at a different point of comprehension or understanding about the true history of this nation and its past with blackbirding.
What Black Snow does, according to Ramo, is it shows rather than tells this history.
“It’s creating a space for dialogue and conversation that we’re otherwise not having and creating it in a way that regardless of where you’re at with your understanding, it allows you to be part of the conversation.”
“I think for so long, it’s felt like there [wasn’t] an ability to have dialogue around it; we start talking about it and people don’t actually want to dive any deeper.”
But Black Snow dives deep and takes you along the journey in a way that no one has before. Most of that is largely thanks to the community consultation and cultural involvement in the Stan production.
“Aunty Marion was the cultural consultant for [the cast and crew] and anyone that worked on Black Snow sat through [the cultural competency] which is incredible that producers were really investing in cultural competency.”
“There was such a beautiful energy because everyone’s starting point was sitting down with Aunty Marion and having a cultural workshop and obviously, you can’t learn everything in that moment but [it’s] setting that kind of intent and empowering people to be a part of telling and supporting us to tell our story,” Ramo said.
Black Snow is just one story; there are many more
The story of Isabel Baker is a fictional one based on very real events and stories, but, obviously, it’s just one story.
We can only hope that Black Snow becomes the trailblazer for telling these stories and including proper representation. Then perhaps we can have the right people tell their own truths.
For Ramo, Black Snow is one specific story that connects to a lot of different experiences, but for him, it’s more about the humanity of the community.
“My hope is that it demonstrates that these stories are worth telling and is the first of many to come, because one story can’t tell it all.”
All six episodes of Black Snow dropped on Stan on January 1. You can sign up for Stan here.
The Cheapest NBN 50 Plans
Here are the cheapest plans available for Australia’s most popular NBN speed tier.