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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Weinberg is a Toronto-based writer.
Injun: A documentary film by Neil Diamond
Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond takes an entertaining and insightful
look at the Hollywood Indian, exploring the portrayal of North American
Natives through a century of cinema.