Saturday, June 19, 2010

All Cowboys Wear Black Hats: Reel Injun

If Hollywood produced a single film that portrayed Native peoples with insufficient sensitivity in the past thirty years, it would be a highly isolated exception. Granted, that has not always been the case. Indeed, it is the Hollywood images of over half a century ago that still pre-occupy Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond in Reel Injun (trailer here), his politicized survey of Native Americans in Hollywood films, now screening at MoMA.

Part doc and part road movie, Diamond jumps in his “rez car” to tour the important scenes of both real life Native American history and the locations from classic movie westerns. If there is one villain in Reel, it would be director John Ford, whose acknowledged classic Stagecoach is identified as the mother-source of all the unenlightened screen stereotypes of Native peoples that followed. However, Diamond seems to make the roundabout concession that most of the revisionist westerns in the 1970’s and after are just as guilty of trafficking in racial stereotypes, simply replacing the blood-thirsty savage with the noble victim.

As a result, for much of the film, Diamond seems to fighting a straw man, countering preconceptions that have not held any cultural currency for fifty-some years. In doing so, he results to plenty of oversimplifying himself, as when he attempts to reduce John Wayne to a mere swagger. Yet, Wayne was a more accomplished actor than revisionist critics (evidently including Diamond) care to admit, particularly in his late films, like his Oscar-winning turn in True Grit and his final film, The Shootist, which is itself somewhat revisionist.

Reel is most successful when telling the story of Native actors who were able to claw out a place for themselves in old Hollywood. Ironically, in the case of both silent star Buffalo Child Long Lance and Iron Eyes Cody (famous for the “Keep America Beautiful” PSA), consideration of their careers gets caught up in questions of racial authenticity. While the tragic Long Lance was legitimately tri-racial, Cody was in fact Sicilian, but is largely accepted by the film’s authority figures for his good intentions.

There are generous interview clips with leading Native actors and filmmakers, with the best lines and greatest insights probably coming from Smoke Signals director Chris Eyre. (Twin Peaks fans will be bitterly disappointed by the absence of Michael Horse, though.) Not shy about interjecting himself into the picture, Diamond would have been better served if he had de-emphasized his road trip meta-structure and simply let his subjects talk more. In fact, some his episodes are a bit strange, as when he shows the graphically violent massacre scene from Little Big Man to a class of awfully young looking Native elementary students.

Altogether, Reel offers an okay overview of Native Peoples in Hollywood (and a few Canadian) films. While it moves along relatively briskly, it has the net effect of whetting the audience’s appetite for the superior films it discusses, including Zacharias Kunuk’s The Fast Runner, Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, and yes absolutely Ford’s Stagecoach. It screens through Sunday (6/20) at MoMA.