Friday, April 13, 2012

Reel Injun

Release Date: 2010
Production Company: Rezolution Pictures, National Film Board of Canada
Directors: Neil Diamond, Catherine Bainbridge, and Jeremiah Hayes
Run time: 85 minutes
Seen on: Netflix DVD, available on Watch Instantly
Recommended: Yes, very compelling and interesting
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 85%

The film begins: "In over 4000 films, Hollywood has shaped the image of Native Americans.  Classic westerns like They Died with Their Boots On created stereotypes.  Later blockbusters like Little Big Man, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Dances with Wolves began to dispel them.  Not until a renaissance in Native cinema did films like Once Were Warriors and Smoke Signals portray Native people as human beings."  This film explores the effect of Hollywood cinema defining the Native American not only for whites, but for Native people as well.

The desire to watch films depicting Native Americans may stem from their tragedy.  "The myth of the fearless stoic warrior lives on."  It is similar to watching Greek or Roman myths.  The narrator, Neil Diamond (no, not that Neil Diamond), drives 4000 miles from Canada through the American West to discover the origins of the stereotypes of the "Indian."  He arrives in the Great Plains and Black Hills, home to Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.  Here, the narrator fulfills a dream.  "I've always wanted to ride a horse on the open plains.  I finally feel like a real Indian."  The irony is not lost on the viewer.  We later learn that Plains Indians were the stereotyped "Indian" with the large headdress and the excellent horsemanship.

With the Battle of Little Big Horn, Hollywood turned the battle into a legend and Crazy Horse into an icon.  He is a mystical warrior to Native Americans as well as in movies.  "He is an embodiment of the human spirit." (John Trudell.)

Birth of the Hollywood Injun
The Native American is portrayed as spiritual, noble, and free.  The first films created by Thomas Edison in the 1800s through his kinetescope captured the world's imagination.  "These people are mythological.  They don't even really exist.  They're like dinosaurs." Jim Jarmusch, Filmmaker.  "The reason Indians were projected so heavily into movies was the romance of the tragedy, Greek/Roman tragedy."  (Chris Eyre, Cheyenne/Arapaho Filmmaker)

This documentary moves nicely between the journey of the narrator through the American West, interviews with Native filmmakers and critics, and clip of the important films.  The narrator comes to Crow Agency, Montanta.  It was here that the myth of the Native as a born horseman may have begun.  It is like they were born on a horse.  Rod Rondeaux is a Crow Stuntman who also teaches his craft of horsemanship.  He believes the horses can save them as they saved him.  In an ironic twist, Rondeaux can also ride in a low-rider and or put on a turban to be your "worst enemy."  Now Hollywood does not have whites playing Indian, but Native Americans playing Hispanic or Arab.

The Noble Injun
In the silent era, Indians were a Hollywood star.  People went to the movies every week.  There were Native Americans directing and acting in the films.  The population was dipping, so films were see as a chance to capture Indians before they vanished.  The Silent Enemy was one of the most authentic films of its time.  The enemy was starvation and their battle to survive.  The star, Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance was a darling of Hollywood before his tragic end.

The Savage Injun
During the Great Depression, Indians were transformed into the brutal savage.  This was damaging to Native people.  It gave the opinion of Native people for decades, not only for the country as a whole, but for Native people as well.  Native men were viewed as a characterture.  Movie stars such as Burt Reynolds, Anthony Quinn, and  Charles Bronson "played Indian."  Hollywood robbed Nations of their individualism.  They were no longer regional, but all became Plains Indians, with headdresses, buckskins, and the thoroughly unauthentic headbands.  Native women were largely absent, aside from the mythic image of Pocahontas.  The Hollywood image of Pocahontas was so removed from the reality of a nine year old girl.  Her character became the embodiment of American society and desire.

The Cowboy
John Wayne's violent actions are excused because they are against Indians.  John Wayne represented the moral center of America.  The actors used in films during this time were often true Native Americans.  They spoke their true language during filming, one that the director did not bother translating.  One actual translation is: " Just like a snake you'll be crawling in your own shit."

A Good a Dead Injun
Even Bugs Bunny killed Indians in his cartoons.  These films shaped peoples opinions.  "I am a human being.  This is the name of my tribe.  This is the name of my people, but I'm a human being.  But the predatory mentality shows up and starts calling us Indians and committing genocides against us as a vehicle of being a human being.  So they use war, textbooks, history book, and when film came along they used film.  You go in our own communities.  How many of us are fighting to protect our identity of being an Indian and 600 years ago that word 'Indian', that sound, was never made, ever.  And we're trying to protect that as an identity.  See, so it effects all of us."  "But we're not Indians and we're not Native Americans, we're older than both concepts."  "We're the people, we're the human beings." (John Trudell)

The Groovy Injun
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Western was out of style.  The Hippies were popular and emulated the American Indian as a free spirit.  It was a fictionalized version of American society.
"Native American people became a great allegorical tool to stand in for virtually any oppressed people.  So you had Native Americans really standing in for the Civil Rights Movement which was going on at the time.  It was a time when Native Americans began to assert themselves more politically and more forcefully."  (Jesse Welte).  Native people began to fight back not only in movies, but in real life as well.  Through the character of Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, "There was a beginning to see an ownership over these stereotypes." (Jesse Welte)  There was a satire of these stereotypes through Little Big Man.  Natives were fleshed out as characters.  The view was still from the outside, but there was a sensitive and sympathetic approach.
The Renaissance
Native filmmakers are emerging as a cultural and artistic voice.  The stories being told are not necessarily for the Hollywood audience.  They are telling their own stories, from the inside.  They are recording their own stories.  Their is an aboriginal film movement across the world from Australia to South America to Canada.
"We're not asking to be you know nobles, righteous, or good all the time.  We're asking to be human."  Chris Eyres

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