2 Dec 2023

Julian Dennison is back in Uproar, taking on the Springboks' 1981 tour of New Zealand

7:28 pm on 2 December 2023
Rhys Darby as Brother Madigan Julian Dennison as Josh Waaka and Minnie Driver as Shirley Waaka in Uproar.

Rhys Darby as Brother Madigan Julian Dennison as Josh Waaka and Minnie Driver as Shirley Waaka in Uproar. Photo: Geoff Short

By Rachel Rasker, ABC News

Julian Dennison has appeared in a Marvel and a Godzilla film, acted alongside Ryan Reynolds and Millie Bobby Brown - and all before the ripe old age of 21.

But, for most people, he is still that Ricky Baker kid from Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Taika Waititi's 2016 hit soared to the top of the box office, with Julian becoming an overnight celebrity at just 14, all while still attending a regular high school near Wellington.

"I got top in drama in year 13 and I remember going up on stage … and I think everyone wasn't surprised because it was only two of us in the class, and the other guy didn't even show up for graduation."

Simultaneously acting in so many Hollywood movies would not have hurt his chances either.

In Julian's new flick Uproar, his character's life echoes his own experiences of navigating culture, racism and ethics, all while going through the truly formative adventure that is attending an all-boys high school.

New Zealand in 1981

Uproar is set in Aotearoa New Zealand in 1981, when the rugby-obsessed country is divided over the arrival of the South African Springboks team.

The apartheid regime in South Africa meant that, in the 1960s, Māori players were excluded from touring South Africa with the All Blacks. For the 1970 tour, a "compromise" was devised where Māori players were deemed "honorary whites".

Meanwhile, in Australia, the government enforced a ban on sporting tours involving South African teams from 1972 onwards.

Comparatively, New Zealand continued to defy international calls for a boycott, and the All Blacks toured South Africa again in 1976, a mere two weeks after the slaughter of protesting students in Soweto.

By 1981, the Springboks came to New Zealand, and tensions reached a boiling point.

Anti-apartheid protesters invaded a pitch in Hamilton and prevented their second game going ahead.

Over the two-month tour, 2000 people were arrested and 150,000 pro and anti-tour demonstrators battled it out on the streets and rugby fields.

'One of the few brown boys in my year'

In the film, Julian's character Josh is struggling to find his voice and a place in the world.

Josh is a Māori rarity at a mostly-white private boys' school - a feeling that is all too familiar for Julian.

"[My school] was very, you know, socks up to the knees, calling each other by your last name," he said.

"Being one of the few brown boys in my year and how I had to deal with that and navigate our school … I felt very connected to Josh."

Despite being inspired by a true story, Julian said they did not quite nail everything about an all-boys school.

"What they missed is if you could have 4D and could smell the changing room," he said.

"That thick toe jam, Lynx Africa smell is just ingrained into my brain."

His change rooms were made from a flaky wood, and their uniform included wool socks - that stuck.

"At the end of year 13 it was tradition for everyone to throw their socks [onto the change-room ceiling]," he said.

"Over the holidays, from the heat, the smell of the socks would brew inside of the changing room [ready for] the first week of the next year at school."

Julian's also become known for appearing in a deodorant ad. Read into that what you will.

Deciding 'what to deal with, and what to leave'

In the film, Josh both literally and metaphorically sits on the fence. He is uncomfortable with who he is, and is reluctant to join the anti-racist protests.

Having one white parent (British actress Minnie Driver) and a Māori dad makes it even harder for Josh to find his place.

Julian is also of both Māori and Pākehā descent, and said being a child star did no make handling racism any easier.

"I think it was hard being in the spotlight to be honest, because you don't want to look like you're calling anyone out," he said.

"I had to learn how to deal with that and how to navigate it … what to say, when to say it, what to deal with, and what to leave."

In the film, those who were against the protests argued that Māori people were only seeking to cause division by bringing up racism, when New Zealand should be a united country - eerily similar to another debate that sent Australians to the polls.

"I look at Australia and everything that's happened and my heart just aches for the people."

"I hope Uproar helps people to understand, encourages people to learn, to read about things, to talk about things, and to talk about the people of this land and what they mean to it," he said.

While he said audiences may come out of the film wondering how the scenes of 1981 "only happened 40 years ago", Julian said it was important to remember that many people "still live that today".

"It might not be as graphic or it might not be as seen, but it's definitely just as much felt and just as much tolerated by Māori, and by all sorts of people."

This story was originally published by the ABC.

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