Hollywood: Makin’ it while Red

Films like The Revenant challenge native stereotypes, but don't change them
Photo: Peter Richardson

There are no more cowboys unearthing native graves and brutally shooting Indian corpses in the face, like John Wayne did in 1956’s The Searchers. And it's almost certain today's action-hero-equivalent of Charles Bronson won't be donning redface, a headdress and a loincloth and bronzing his body red to pass off as an Indian chief, as in 1959's Never so Few.

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No. Today's fresh-face generation of movie-goers are growing up with the likes of Alejandro González Iñárritu's vision, which recently gave us The Revenant. Despite its controversial use of violence and rape, it's been praised for the lengths to which it went to accurately capture the historical and cultural nuances of the Indigenous nations portrayed in it.

And, of course, because it had real Natives playing the Native characters.

Yet, for all its cultural accuracy, The Revenant remains a Hollywood film in which Indigenous actors happen to be involved. It's not a Native film.

On the other hand, since the 1990s, independent Native cinema has not only competed with but even challenged Hollywood's long-held vision of the American Indian.

"At some point people have to hear the other side of history."

Small, underfunded independent studios were churning out the likes of 1994's Dance Me Outside and Smoke Signals in 1998, to name a couple. Jesse Wente, an Ojibway producer, writer and film critic, has even described the latter as the harbinger of “the Golden Age of Aboriginal cinema.”

These were movies made by Natives, for Natives, about “Native-ness now,” as Wente put it in Reel Injun, a 2009 documentary looking at Hollywood's historical portrayal of Native Americans.

Then came Zacharia Kunuk's Atarnajuat: The Fast Runner in 2001. It brought an Inuit legend hundreds of years old to the screen and revolutionized native cinema, according to Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond, who co-directed Reel Injun.

But given Hollywood's relative monopoly on the film industry, Indigenous performers and the representations of their cultures have often been left to the whim of non-Native directors' own interpretations. Thus the stereotypical horse-riding, armour-and-feather-clad, drum-beating Hollywood Indian stock character, popularized by the Westerns of the 1930s all the way to the 1970s and, to an extent, revived in the 1990s, has been a mainstay in pop culture.

Few, however, recognize its origins.

'Most of us can't even ride'

Real-life events like the Little Big Horn Battle of 1875 and the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 inspired the image of the fierce, horse-mounted Indian warrior, which exploded on the United States’ burgeoning cinema industry of the early 20th century.

These inspired “more than 4,000 movies that have reinforced the stereotype,” says Diamond in Reel Injun. “But most of us can't even ride (horses).”

While movies like The Revenant and 1990's Dances With Wolves, starring Kevin Costner, have tried to present more nuanced views of Indigenous people, they still are not telling Indigenous stories.

The last time Indigenous people had such a positive influence in Hollywood was perhaps during its birth.

“If you have a white lead and you have a white director, that's not from an Indigenous point of view,” says Joanelle Romero, an award-winning director, actress, and humanitarian of Apache and Cheyenne descent with more than 40 years in the industry. “There are (now) more Native directors and producers (and writers) that are completely qualified.”

“No one can build a career on that,” she adds.

That's why Romero founded the Red Nation Celebration Institute in Los Angeles, California, in 1995. This non-profit umbrella organization has, in turn, birthed a music, film and television “empire.” Red Nation Television Network alone reaches over 10 million viewers in 37 countries, she says. Through this self-proclaimed empire, she and her team have helped launch the careers of many Indigenous actors. More importantly, they've provided outlets through which Indigenous performers can tell their own stories.

Ryan McMahon, an Anishinaabe comedian and classically trained actor, believes that is an essential step forward.

“We've never had control of our imagery ... of the way the world experiences us,” he says. “Since contact, it's always been done through priests' journals, in the accounts of explorers, through textbooks written by white men. So at some point people have to hear the other side of history.”

A positive influence

While far from being the “other side of history,” The Revenant has indeed helped challenge what once was a total disregard for Indigenous traditions and cultures.

“The director, cinematographer, the main actors, they were all very grounded people, very human,” says Craig Falcon, an Indigenous cultural educator who was hired to help with the movie. “And they had total respect for our culture, and there was nothing but really in-depth questions about how we do things and our way of life.”

Falcon became the Indigenous consultant on everything from the languages used, to the garments wore and even the horses' war paint. He says any attempt to represent Indigenous people in such a culturally and historically factual manner will always be a step in the right direction.

“I really do appreciate them using their fame to bring these issues out,” he says. “When we speak, most people ... try to shut us up and don't want to listen.... For them to come out and assist us with our push to protect our environment, and to find a better way of life for us, and to right the wrongs that governments have done to us for centuries – I'm all for it.”

The last time Indigenous people had such a positive influence in Hollywood was perhaps during its birth. “In 1907 and into the 1920s,” Romero says, “there were more Native actors working ... than there are today.”

Indeed, says Diamond, by that time, the “Indian becomes not only a hero, but a Hollywood star.”

He doubts a box-office hit would “change things systematically.”

From the 1930s on, however, with people's frustration over the Great Depression, Indigenous people became a pariah — a brutal savage to be destroyed by renegade cowboys. John Wayne carried that torch for over three decades and passed it to Clint Eastwood in the 1970s.

But by that time, Chief Dan George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, one of only four Native actors to ever be nominated for an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actor, 1970), began fleshing out the stoic warrior stereotype. By infusing his own comedic style into otherwise violent films, the Indigenous actor, poet and author helped open the door for more nuanced, more personable Native roles to emerge in the 1990s. (The 1980s were a lost cause for all things fashionable.)

“Native humour is inherent in our worldview,” McMahon says. It's “embedded in our teachings, governance, clan system ... in our creation story. Humour ... is a tool that's been used for thousands of years.”

The most Indian movie ever

It was during that time that it “once again became cool to play Indian” in Hollywood, as Diamond puts it. Yet, the real victory was being won outside of Hollywood's pearly gates.

If Dance Me Outside and Smoke Signals ushered in the Golden Age in the 1990s, Kunuk's Atarnajuat: The Fast Runner “revolutionized Native cinema” in the new century, Diamond says. Or, as Smoke Signals director Chris Eyre put it himself in Diamond's documentary: it became “the most Indian movie ever made.”

Despite movies like The Revenant, mainstream cinema still has a long way to go. Adam Sandler's aptly titled The Ridiculous 6 is a testament to the hoops that Native actors trying to make it still have to jump through.

Romero says a mainstream Hollywood box-office Native hit would go a long way in changing all that. It would show that Native movies can, indeed, make money. “That would give us power,” she says.

But while McMahon agrees there is a lot of underutilized and unrecognized Indigenous talent, he doubts a box-office hit would “change things systematically.”

“The more we support (indigenous) artists that are already making work and stop looking for acceptance from Hollywood or the mainstream, the further we will actually go,” he says.

Last year, Romero was successful in introducing the Indigenous Eyes Filmmaker Showcase into the American Film Market, an annual event where more than 1,600 distribution companies converge in L.A. and Paris to scout new talent. It gave Indigenous filmmakers access to a global audience for the first time, and it's returning this year. Romero says she proved “to the industry that people want to see and experience native cinema internationally.”

For his part, McMahon says any opportunity for performers to break through and to get recognized is welcomed. However, he adds, they should never forget that the best way to fight the uphill battle is to do it on their own terms, not Hollywood's.

“To think that in a visual medium, people decide whether I work or not before I even open my mouth is frustrating,” he concludes. “So you can accept that, and you can spin your wheels in Hollywood.... Or you can make your own ship and empower yourself ... as an artist and a community.”

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