Saturday, March 28, 2009

NAFV Fest: The Trail of Tears

History can be messy, but that is when it is usually most interesting. Such is the case in Chris Eyre’s The Trail of Tears, the third installment of We Shall Remain (series trailer here), an upcoming five-film series running in conjunction with PBS’s American Experience, starting April 13th. A complete self-contained film with some legitimate star-power, Trail had its U.S. premiere as the opening night feature of the 2009 Native American Film and Video Festival, held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in lower Manhattan.

Eyre became an overnight star of the Indie film circuit with Smoke Signals, his feature directorial debut, and has since helmed high profile television projects, including adaptations of Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn mysteries for PBS. Mixing elements of the dramatic feature film with the traditional talking-head documentary, Trail reunites Eyre with the super-bad Wes Studi, recognizable for roles such as Leaphorn and supporting turns in Michael Mann’s Heat and Last of the Mohicans. While Studi, an Oklahoman Cherokee, has portrayed many Native American characters on film, Trail represents his first Cherokee speaking role.

Studi plays Major Ridge, a Cherokee leader who remains controversial to this day for his actions leading up to the Trail of Tears. Eyre made a conscious editorial decision to eschew a traditional victimization narrative, instead focusing on Ridge, his son John, and their chief rival, John Ross, the duly elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, and their actions surrounding the infamous trek. Indeed, very little screen-time is devoted to the incident itself, which everyone should understand was a great tragedy. Instead, Eyre provides context, which means viewers actually might learn something.

Major Ridge was a prominent Cherokee leader, who owned a southern plantation, and yes, a good number of slaves. A one-time ally of Ross, he was one of the signers of the Treaty of New Echota, which formally ceded the Cherokee land in Georgia and Tennessee in exchange for territory in Oklahoma, at a time when Ross was still trying to hold off the Federal Government. Ridge led the first wave of Cherokee settlers shortly thereafter, in what would be a much easier journey than the forced removal that was soon to come.

Eyre’s film seems to suggest Ridge believed the preservation of Cherokee sovereignty as a nation should be their highest priority, whereas for Ross, the integrity of their National homeland was the key to their survival. After watching Trail it is difficult to argue that either man was definitively right or wrong. What emerges is a nuanced picture that forthrightly depicts several instances of internal violence during the power struggle between the Ridge and Ross factions. It also acknowledges not all white Americans were villains, identifying support for the Cherokee cause among Northern National-Republicans (precursors of the Whigs and eventually the GOP), as well as the Christian missionaries living amongst them. However, Andrew Jackson understandably comes across quite badly, the case of “Indian Removal” not being the finest hour for Jacksonian Democrats in retrospect.

Studi is perfectly cast as Ridge, a complicated man of action. Despite the interrupting interview segments and Benjamin Bratt’s narration, he maintains an intensity that drives the dramatic scenes. Avoiding the siren call of misery porn, Eyre has made an even-handed film that educates rather than lectures. Trail will be broadcast nationally as part of We Shall Remain, beginning next month. The NAFV Festival continues throughout the weekend at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Admission is free, but reservations are recommended.

(Photo: Billy Weeks)