In Once Were Warriors, Beth has been married to Jake for 18 years. She abandoned her Maori tribe in order to be with him. The elders scorned Jake as a person coming from "a long line of slaves." He has never forgotten being shamed by them and over the years has nourished an inner rage that frequently explodes into acts of physical violence.
They live in an urban ghetto in Auckland, New Zealand, where the streets are littered with trash and the walls are covered with graffiti. Despite their poverty, Beth has tried to hold her family of five children together. But now Jake has lost another job and is spending more time at the bar with his unemployed buddies. In the evenings, he brings them all home for loud, late-night parties. In a blind, drunken rage, Jake beats Beth so viciously that she can't attend a hearing the next day for one of her sons. He is sent away to a home for juvenile delinquents.
The oldest son joins a gang to prove his manhood and to escape from Jake. Only 13-year-old Grace is there to help Beth. She cannot understand why her mother doesn't walk out. Grace has inherited a Maori talent for storytelling but not even this magic gift can protect her from the violence in her home.
Once Were Warriors has broken all box office records in New Zealand. First-time film director Lee Tamahori has drawn out three astonishing performances from Rena Owen as the gutsy and long-suffering Beth, from Temuera Morrison as the alcoholic and abusive Jake, and from Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell as the beautiful and sensitive Grace.
This mesmerizing film speaks volumes about the way besieged tribes of indigenous peoples have turned their rage inward in acts of self-destruction. Beth does finally takes a stand for herself and the children. Her valiant act of courage stems from her Maori roots of pride and self respect. Once Were Warriors is one of the best films of 1995.