Who is the real Native Indian of North America or, if you prefer, the American Indian? The images that many will recall of the Native Indian of USA and Canada are often closely related to the images of the native Indian conjured up by Hollywood, often images that have been stretched far from an accurate depiction for the sake of convenience by Hollywood directors, scriptwriters, and costume designers. And we the viewers after watching several such depictions begin to believe in these inaccuracies. For instance, one associates Native Indians to wear headbands while in reality the headband was common headgear only for a small fraction of the Indian nations on that continent. The headband was used by Hollywood initially for stunt actors to keep their wigs in place as they performed amazing acts for the camera. Gradually the headband became the norm of the Native Indian’s regalia. This is one of the many interesting insights provided by Neil Diamond’s Reel Injun.
Neil Diamond, the director of the full-length documentary is not the singer Neil Diamond that my generation would fondly recall. He is a Native Indian from Canada, of the Cree nation, and a filmmaker. The film is an interesting mix of interviews and film clips of Westerns made over a century with Native Indians. Reel Injun looks critically at how cinema can blur the truth about the Native Indian. The interviewees include Native Indians and Hollywood icons such as Clint Eastwood and independent director Jim Jarmusch, who are obviously not Native Indians. The film discusses the controversial incident at Wounded Knee in 1973, which has a direct bearing on the several Hollywood films recalling the century-old but more important incident at Wounded Knee in 1890 and of the more famous Little Big Horn incident in 1876. Both incidents are history; the moot question is how the incidents were recorded in history and on film. Poet Stephen Vincent Benet immortalized the former incident in his poem “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee,” and popular songs and films such as Hidalgo (2004) and Into the West (2005) followed in Benet’s footsteps.
I am not a US citizen but I grew up watching Hollywood cinema that recorded the 1876 incident. One particular film etched in my memory as a kid was Lewis R Forster’s Tonka (1958) produced by Walt Disney and thanks to that film even as a kid the viewpoint of the Native Indian struck a chord with me. It is unfortunate that no clip from Tonka was included in Reel Injun because it was one of the few Hollywood movies that came very close to portraying a positive view of the Native Indian. Forster’s film is an important one for Native Indians as it provided the “unromantic truth of the warfare on the plains” (General Custer’s last stand) as one writer wryly noted. Tonka was not the only Hollywood film that portrayed native Indians positively: there was John Ford’s important film Cheyenne Autumn (1964), Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) , Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Terence Mallick’s The New World (2005) and finally my favourite Abraham Polonsky’s Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969). Each of these top-notch films are important takes on the Native Indian but Mr Diamond only chose to discuss the Arthur Penn film and the Michael Mann film to drive home his point of view.
A major point of discussion in the film is Marlon Brando’s support for the Native American and Brando’s decision to decline the Godfather Best Actor Oscar in 1973 by sending a Native Indian to read out his message protesting the depiction of the Native Indian by Hollywood. John Wayne was so incensed that he wanted to physically attack the Native Indian who came on stage to refuse the award. Other critics claimed the lady was not a Native American at all but was of Italian descent and so on. But the brave lady Sacheen Littlefeather (born Marie Cruz) made a point that made the world sit up. For me, Brando was not just a great actor, but a man who was sensitive to social issues around him. This action of Brando is in line with his comment that his lead role in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Quiemada was the finest piece of acting he ever did. Quiemada has only seen a fraction of critical acclaim in comparison with Brando’s work in mainstream Hollywood films.
After you have viewed Neil Diamond’s documentary you will have a definite position on the subject. You might agree with Diamond or you might not. Arguably Reel Injun is not the finest of documentaries but it is definitely a documentary that will set the viewer thinking. Diamond underscores the fact that often the viewer assumes that what he or she sees on screen is correct while cinema is a potent hidden persuader. Diamond fleshes out the real personalities of Native Indian actors such as Russell Means and Wes Studi, who played major roles as Native Indians in Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans. Diamond’s film, most of all, will effectively persuade a true filmgoer to seek out the revisionist films from North America that put the Native Indian in a better perspective than the traditional Western with the stereotype roles of scalp-hunting savages. Diamond’s film discusses roles and personalities of Native Indian actors Graham Greene (I often wonder if the celebrated late novelist Graham Greene knew of this Canadian actor, best known for his Oscar-winning role in another revisionist film Dances with Wolves and who shared his name) and American Native Indian actor Will Sampson who played the unforgettable role of Chief Bromden who pretends to be deaf and dumb in Milos Foreman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Finally, Diamond’s film includes Clint Eastwood’s statement made in an interview to Mr Diamond that relates to the Oscar Academy debating whether Native Indians portraying themselves can be considered to be essaying a performance worthy of an Academy Award! However, the following personal quote of the late actor Will Sampson best encapsulates the point of view of Reel Injun: “Hollywood writers and directors are still using 'em for livestock. They somehow just can't seem to bring it around to give the truth about Indians.”
P.S. Arthur Penn's Little Big Man and Gillo Pontecorvo's Quiemada (Burn!) have been discussed earlier on this blog.