The image of Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner, in the great Inuit movie, is what still stays in my mind almost a decade after its release — one lean desperate man dashing naked across the choppy Arctic ice and snow to flee from the murderers of his brother.
Only a great Inuit actor, Natar Ungalaaq, brought up on this millennium-old epic while growing up in his Arctic community, could make that role work — perhaps partly because he was willing to take the physical chances required to be out in the frigid cold — explains the producer of the film, Norm Cohn. We then hear director Zacharias Kunuk explain that his film was made primarily with a younger Inuit audience in mind, to keep the stories and legends of his people vital and alive. International fame is fine, the soft spoken man seemed to suggest, but local is what counts and ultimately claims the heart.
I am breaking the rules by telling you the ending of Reel Injun: on the trail of the Hollywood Indian, Neil Diamond’s wonderful new documentary about how aboriginal people in North America, primarily the U.S., have been portrayed by the movie industry.
It took a century or more to get to a point where the Fast Runner was possible, says Diamond, a James Bay Cree (no relation to the singer of the same name), in his personal journey from Igloolik in Nunavut to the impoverished Lakota Sioux Pine Ridge reservation in the badlands of South Dakota, and beyond into the American great plains to probe the old westerns which served as a crucible for the American cultural and political imagination.
With Diamond serving as the narrator for his own film, Reel Injun interacts from familiar Hollywood film scenes to a range of talking-head interviews, including filmmakers Clint Eastwood and Chris Eyre (of the highly successful native film Smoke Signals), Toronto/Ojibwa film critic and broadcaster Jesse Wente, Native-American activists Russell Means, John Trudell, and Sacheen Littlefeather, actors Graham Greene and Adam Beach, and the hilarious U.S. native comic Charlie Hill.
Cowboy and Indian dramas (with aboriginal actors playing the cowboys and paid in “fire-water”) were a major staple of the silent pictures. Reel Injun introduces us to one in the Silent Enemy, a film which depicted a noble people decimated by starvation. The historical context underpinning that film is that after American Indians had lost their battles with the U.S. military and were relegated to American reservations in the late 19th century, their numbers began to decrease, and there were expectations of their eventual extinction.
In Reel Injun we learn the tragic story of actor Buffalo Child Long Lance, the star of Silent Enemy, formerly known as Sylvester Clark Long, who was the toast of the wealthy and powerful in the U.S. for his Blackfoot/Cherokee heritage until it was revealed that he was in reality partially Afro-American and native (but not Blackfoot). The controversy that ensued culminated in his suicide in 1932.
This reduction of aboriginal film characters to the stereotypical savage or noble warrior wearing headbands and feathers (even though not all tribes wore them), battling economic progress as personified by the arrival of the white settlers, persisted in Hollywood films until the 1960s. The penultimate film in this category was the much admired John Ford classic Stage Coach where John Wayne stood out as the vicious and racist Indian fighter.
Also explored is Marlon Brando’s refusal to accept an Oscar for his acting role in the Godfather. In his place to make this announcement at the Academy Awards was Native-American activist Sacheen Littlefeather. She used the occasion to raise the plight of American Indian Movement fighters who were keeping the U.S. military at bay in the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee on Pine Ridge in South Dakota.
The 60s seemed to be the right time for a renaissance in thinking about aboriginal characters in Hollywood. Much of the counterculture of the time embodied values that seemed to originate in First Nations culture — that is a sense of free spirit, attachment to land and a fascination with mind-altering plants.
The strong and silent native stereotype, for instance, was turned on its head in the character “Chief,” who was stuck in a psychiatric hospital, played by Creek Oklahoma native Will Sampson in the film One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The downside of the more positive movies about aboriginal people is illustrated by Reel Injun in Dances With Wolves, where the white guy-U.S. bluecoat-officer-gone-Indian character played by Kevin Costner is erroneously shown leading the Lakota Sioux (as if they didn’t know how to fight on their own) in a battle against American soldiers.
One quibble I have with Reel Injun is that the film is mostly about aboriginal men, with the exception of the romanticized depiction of Pocahontas in the Walt Disney movie of the same name.
Not mentioned, probably because the documentary is primarily aimed at an U.S. audience, is that the number of Canadian actors of aboriginal origin who have gone to Hollywood to play native roles — including Adam Beach and Graham Greene — is remarkably high. Going south has been the means for these actors to make a living as movie and television work has dried up in their home country at the CBC – a story worth telling in and of itself.
Also left out is the barrier which must currently exist towards the financing of new native films. After all, Smoke Signals was made in 1998; Atanarjuat came out in 2001.
On balance though, Reel Injun is still very entertaining and thoughtful. Go see it after you have taken a trip to see Avatar, perhaps the most expensive film about an indigenous people ever made. And there is not a single native person in that sci-fi epic — a story about humans from Earth seeking to rob a planet’s blue people of their resources. This is the oldest story in Hollywood and it continues to fascinate.
Paul Weinberg is a Toronto-based writer.