Wednesday, August 18, 2010

ADFF Summer Series ’10: Hearing Radmilla

During the Miss Navajo Nation beauty pageant, contestants are required to butcher a lamb, which is pretty cool. They also must demonstrate proficiency in other traditional aspects of Navajo culture, including fluency in the Navajo language, the area where Radmilla Cody particularly distinguished herself when she won her crown as the first bi-racial Miss Navajo. Cody revisits her controversial (but largely uneventful) reign and the dramatic events that followed in Angela Webb’s documentary profile Hearing Radmilla (trailer here), which screens this Sunday during the African Diaspora Film Festival’s 2010 Summer Series.

Cody is the daughter of a Navajo mother and an African-American father, but she was raised by her traditional Navajo grandmother. Eventually, she left for the big city of Phoenix, getting involved with a fast crowd and very definitely the wrong man. Though her reign as Miss Navajo required a chaste year-long separation from her Ike, it was evidently not enough, since she eventually took up with him again, despite his abuse and criminal activity. While she tried to resist, the former directly led to her involvement in the latter.

Indeed, the relationship cost Cody nearly everything, including her liberty. The sympathetic film clearly suggests the sentence she served was unfairly harsh, given her fear of her ex, but when she went to the trouble of unperjuring herself with the grand jury, but then did not come completely clean, she put herself in a tough position. She herself readily admits she made mistakes, but she has certainly paid for them.

If not the most artful documentary, Hearing is an informative film, particularly for those of us living in the Northeast, who are likely unfamiliar with Cody. It frequently challenges the New Agey politically correct vision of Native peoples, with the vitriolic response to Cody’s selection as Miss Navajo from some within her community. Webb quotes one hyperbolic letter to a Navajo newspaper likening her victory to “ethnic cleansing.” By and large though, she seems to be accepted by her fellow Navajo, even after her conviction. Indeed, she seems to be a superstar in some areas of Arizona and New Mexico thanks to her music, bringing a soul vocalist’s sensibility to traditional Navajo lyrics, as Robert Doyle, the president of her record label, cogently explains.

Still, most New Yorkers probably will not be familiar with Cody, which makes Hearing a good festival programming selection. Frankly, Hearing is a long shot to get much distribution outside the Southwest, so curious City patrons should check it out this Sunday (8/22) at the Riverside Theater, where the ADFF’s Summer series runs from the 20th to the 29th.