Known as the ‘Black Panther’, Murray was also a vaudeville entertainer who had the courage, despite the social taboos of the time, to marry his blonde-haired, blue-eyed sweetheart.
“In the stadium in Ballarat, he’s the headliner,” Crismani says. “And there are about three other bouts before his.
“He’s in the ring in between each of those bouts doing a song and dance routine for the audience. He comes back, boxes for 10 rounds, wins that fight and when that’s over gets back in the ring and does a big song and dance routine with a piano and all of that kind of stuff for the audience who absolutely loved it.”
Crismani, a filmmaker whose mother is Aboriginal and father Italian, has only recently discovered the stories about the Black Panther.
He and his mother Barbara travelled from Adelaide to Mildura, Melbourne and Ballarat, trawling through libraries and meeting with researchers, historians and elders to unlock the secrets to Murray’s life.
The result is an hour-long documentary, The Panther Within, which will premiere on NITV next month.
Crismani says he’s been struck with how courageous his grandfather was.
“There was a time when the Premier of the state was going against him and said he was harbouring Communists,” he says.
“He spoke back to the Premier in the big newspaper of the day, and there’s a big article about that, which I think is fascinating.
“There are these nice shades of a man who would be lauded for all his amazing skills and talents in terms of showmanship, which is sort of buried in history.”
Crismani says he made the documentary because he needed to connect with his family’s past, but struck many contradictory and misleading details and records along the way.
“Due to the government policies treating Aboriginal people as the lowest form of people, a dying race and part of the flora and fauna of Australia, Grandpop understandably adopted other identities to survive and help his family, but for future generations that left very little to go on,” he says.
“We found out a lot about Grandpop. He was a man who was very intelligent and resourceful at adopting different cultural identities and finding ways to make a living – a clever man who did not allow the oppressive racism of government policies or white Australian laws to make less of him, as he wove his way through those barriers for the good of his family and himself.”
* The Panther Within premieres Wednesday March 15 at 8pm on NITV.
By Wendy Caccetta