Richard J. Frankland was born in Melbourne, but grew up mainly on the coast in south-west Victoria. Frankland has worked as a soldier, a fisherman, and as a field officer to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. This experience inspired him to write several plays, including No Way to Forget, Who Killed Malcolm Smith and Conversations with the Dead.
Frankland won an AFI Award for Best Screenplay in a Short for his short film No Way to Forget. It was the first film by an Indigenous director to win an AFI Award. It was broadcast nationally on SBS TV. It screened at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival in the category of Un Certain Regard.
He wrote and directed Harry's War, a feature film based on his uncle's role in World War II on the Kokoda Trail. The film was screened at the British War Memorial in London and won Best Short Film at Spike Lee's alternative Oscars for black film-makers in Hollywood.
In 2004, his play, Conversations with the Dead, was performed at the United Nations.
Frankland is also a musician, whose music features on the soundtracks to many of his films. In 1992 his first band Djaambi supported Prince on his Australian tour. He formed The Charcoal Club in 1990, with a number of Indigenous and non-Indigenous members. They released three albums on CD: The Charcoal Club (2002), Cry Freedom (2005) and Hearts Full of Rust (2010). A Facebook page for them is still active as of 2020.
In the early nineties he founded Mirimbiak Nations Aboriginal Corporation (MNAC) which was the first Indigenous statewide land organisation in some twenty five years. MNAC was responsible for representing traditional owners and lodging all native title claims throughout the state of Victoria (excepting the already lodged Yorta Yorta, claim but including the recently successful Gunditjmara claim). Richard was also instrumental in forming Defenders of Native Title (DONT), which later became Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTAR).