Title: Reel Injun
Release Date: February 19, 2010
Director: Neil Diamond | Catherine Bainbridge | Jeremiah Hayes
Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond travels across the United States with the ultimate destination of Hollywood, to discuss the depiction of Native Americans in movies over history. The interest grew out of his own childhood experience of watching Westerns in his community and how the children chose to identify with the cowboys rather than the Indians.
Motion pictures were invented at the time when the United States was still fighting the Indian Wars, and the “exotic” culture of native tribes were among the first images caught on film. In the silent era, Native Americans were often the protagonists as white viewers saw them as symbols of freedom and great warriors. The 1930 film, The Silent Enemy, was a sympathetic account of the Ojibwe people that featured a cast of indigenous actors. In the talkie era, the perspective shifted with movies like Stagecoach setting the Western template of Native peoples being the “savages” attacking the “civilized” white pioneers of the Old West. John Wayne becomes the iconic American hero whose violence is justified because “the only good injun is a dead injun.”
The social upheaval of the 1960s lead to changes in Hollywood that included more sympathetic and layered portrayals of Native people (as well as the return of actual indigenous actors to portray them) in movies like Little Big Man, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and The Outlaw Josie Wales. This filmmaking revolution coincided with the rise of Native American activism, including the occupation of Alcatraz Island and the Wounded Knee standoff. Activists from this period, Russell Means and John Trudell, are prominent interviewees. Diamond also interviews Sacheen Littlefeather who notably appeared at the Academy Awards to decline Marlon Brando’s Best Actor award and bring attention to Hollywood’s stereotyped portrayal of Native Americans and the standoff at Wounded Knee.
The next phase of the documentary is the 1990s which kicks off with Dances With Wolves, which is still a “white movie” but one that offers a lot more nuance for its indigenous cast and characters. This kicks off the Renaissance of Native Cinema, including movies like Smoke Signals, Dance Me Outside, Flags of Our Fathers, and Atanarjuat — The Fast Runner (considered “the most Indian movie ever made”).
In the road trip segments Diamond visits locations like the Crazy Horse monument, Wounded Knee, a Crow rodeo, and Monument Valley. He also interviews the son of Iron Eyes Cody, a man of Sicilian heritage who adopted a Native American persona and appeared in hundreds of movies, as well as a famous ad against littering. In two cringeworthy segments, Diamond reveals how the stereotypes of Natives from movies persist among white people – one in a summer camp celebrating “tribal days” and one at an Old West theme park where the gunslingers revere John Wayne.
Reel Injun is a fun and illuminating look at contemporary Native American issues through the lens of Hollywood film. It also is going to make me add a lot of movies to my “must watch” list.