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"Reel Injun" and Stereotypes

A DVD to think about.
A DVD to think about.
carl richardson

Only relatively recently have artists united behind the crushing of all stereotypes. Some victimized groups have already overcome the damage done to them in print, on television, and in movies. But others, amazingly enough, still struggle with crimes against humanity that can be traced to the intersection of artistic media and capitalism-gone-wild. In WWII films, the Anglo-Saxon White Protestant Male is normally the platoon leader, with an assortment of ethnic representations dutifully following. In Flags of Our Fathers (2006), Adam Beach plays Ira Hayes. His is a gritty, realistic portrayal of an alcoholic Native American. But this kind of character, fleshed out, would be hard to find prior to the landmark Clint Eastwood film. It is no great thrill to have been mistreated in life, then once again on film. Still, the use/abuse of technology, especially in the communication industries, to spread lies and demean otherwise decent lives, will never cease. In this film at hand, however, the issue is the image of the Native American, as he or she appears on the silver screen.

Reel Injun, On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian (2009), is a ragtag collection of clips interspersed with film historians, artists, and commentators-at-large weighing in on a subject that is part high brow, part low brow. It is not exactly a critical matter, except insofar as we are all media-influenced beings inside an image-saturated society. As to my own motives, simply put, I like to write. I also find the causes of Native America worthy of interest. But I am perfectly willing to step aside, muzzle my opinions, and allow more dedicated individuals to blaze new trails. In this film, there are several outspoken Native American activists. Among them are Russell Means and John Trudell. They were at the occupation of Alcatraz and the siege in Wounded Knee. But maybe it serves a purpose to be supportive from the outside, where it is admittedly safer and warmer.

I used to be a film professor, so it is gratifying to learn that this documentary incorporated the unwanted remarks of the ivory tower. I realize there is tension between film makers and film critics and teachers, but there is also a time for everything, right? Theoretically, it includes making movies as well as talking movies. Among the movie talkers are educators in film history from the various old tribes such as the Seminole, Innu, or Ojibwa. Reel Injuns itself is directed by a Cree. This is a smart film. Its filmmakers have done their homework, providing informative sequences from historically important films. Smoke Signals, The Fast Runner, Dance Me Outside, Whale Rider, Thunderheart, Ten Canoes, and The Silent Enemy are among those that deal admirably with the indigenous. The documentary also refers to a number of ways in which White America related to Indians both on screen and off. Some seem totally ridiculous. They entail stylish, elastic hippie headbands, summer camp amid totem poles, or half-naked youths sporting war-paint -- hysterically whooping, dancing, and drumming in a cafeteria. But by and large, there is no getting away from the fact of acculturation.

The film is divided into sections, all making use of the word, "Injun", as in Savage Injun, Groovy Injun, or Hollywood Injun. I hardly know what to make of this appellation. Another pejorative term worn as a badge of honor? In any event, it serves to distinguish one subject from another. There is a wealth of information contained in the film's various segments. Many anecdotes or analytical passages might serve as starting points for future projects. This makes me happy. I cannot really explain it. There used to be only Hollywood. Now there is Sundance, too. This is an independent Canadian production that won notice at several film festivals. Yet it did not have a carte blanche. An Ojibwa Native American disclosed on IMDB that the film was full of inaccuracies. But if only partially true, the fact that some Native Americans grew up identifying with Gary Cooper, while one of the greatest of all Native American actors, Iron Eyes Cody, turns out to be a man of Italian heritage, stimulates the intellect. There are still those who think commenting on or criticizing films is beside the point, no matter what, since, after all, only the actual workers or artists involved were on the set or location, in the back rooms, or at work in post-production. But these commercial-artistic artifacts have an afterlife of sorts that justifies, in my opinion, documentaries as thoroughly engrossing as Reel Injun.