“Reel Injuns”

Paleo Retiree writes:


Half-interesting, half-annoying CBC-produced doc, directed and hosted by Neil Diamond, a Canadian Cree, about Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans; the Question Lady and I caught it recently on Netflix Instant. It’s in the “this topic means a lot to me, and I’m on a journey to discover the truth about it …” format that’s around a lot these days. (The other day I watched a doc about eels — eels! — that took this quest-for-the-truth, road-trip form.) Diamond gets in his clunky, rusty old rez car and drives off to visit everyday Indians on reservations, to talk with actors and directors, not all of them Native, and to check in with critics and academics. He shares a lot of movie clips as he’s on the road.

Seeing the clips and learning a little about movie history that I hadn’t been aware of before was fun; so was meeting some of the Indians, learning some real-life Indian lore, and getting glimpses of their lives. How Native Americans experience movies, especially Westerns, is pretty much an automatically fascinating topic. Most of the time Diamond is an affable presence and interlocutor, and the Indians who respond to his questions with an appreciation of the subject’s many ironies are a delight. I was pleasantly surprised when Sacheen Littlefeather, famous for being sent by Marlon Brando to accept his Oscar for “The Godfather,” showed up; I was puzzled that Sherman Alexie didn’t make an appearance.

Not so much fun was the hyper-earnest, militant-activism side of the movie, which is mostly ‘60s radical/academic and is beyond predictable. Diamond starts the film with a broad range of guests, many of whom are quirky, odd and fresh. But as the film goes by he comes back, over and over again, to activist John Trudell and critic Jesse Wente, and they’re both humorless, self-righteous, Professional-Victim-Group-Member sorts. The film’s case of advanced political tunnel vision isn’t just boring; it results in some odd judgements where the movies go, especially a spectacularly off-base interpretation of John Ford’s “The Searchers.” Does Diamond buy into Trudell and Wente’s vision completely? Or did his easygoingness (and possibly his willingness to please his CBC masters) make him vulnerable to being steamrollered into letting Trudell and Wente dictate his movie’s point of view?

The film also left me thinking: Man oh man, do some people take media portrayals a lot more seriously than I do. (The film’s basic idea is to equate movie portrayals with political realities.) Do these academic and geek warriors really believe that protesting stereotypes in the movies and on TV is the same thing as getting something significant done in life? I suppose they do. My additional hunch, though, is that they’re also people who like watching a lot of movies and TV, complaining about what they see, and imagining themselves to be doing something politically important.

To dramatize my point here: how does arguing that Shakespeare was sexist compare as a worthwhile political act to planting some trees, getting rid of a lousy school superintendent, saving a wetlands or preventing Wal-Mart from ruining your local downtown? If you were to accept “Reel Injuns” on its own terms, you’d be agreeing that casting non-Natives as Indian chiefs in corny Westerns was as significant an insult and a tragedy as, say, pushing Indians off their lands and forcing them onto reservations was. I’ve been a huge film buff and I certainly think the arts have their importance, but: Get a little perspective, for god’s sake.

Now, I’ve got precisely zero against protesting cliche’d portrayals in the media, and I think it’s great that some Native Americans have begun making their own movies. Let’s have more of that. (A small recognition that it’s thanks to the efforts of white and Asian technologists and businesspeople that the rest of us can now make our own movies would be nice, but that may be asking for too much.) It’s the idea that these showbiz preoccupations are somehow more important than real-life problems, and are perhaps even the cause of them, that strikes me as bizarre. It can definitely be nice to run across people like yourself in books or onscreen; god knows I’ve enjoyed the handful of movies (“Breaking Away,” “Hoosiers,” a few others) that have done a good job of portraying something like the world I grew up in. But it’s not like enjoying these movies solved any of my real-life vexations, you know?

Sigh: I guess we really are living in a self-esteem-obsessed era. Many people really do seem to 1) think that the most important thing in life is to feel good about themselves, 2) believe that feeling good about themselves is dependent on how the media portray them, and 3) to be deeply convinced that positive action isn’t possible until the media have made you feel good about yourself. I can’t convey how strange I find these notions, and how self-defeating too. What fool would allow his/her ability to conduct and maybe improve his/her life to be dependent on what moviemakers are up to?

We stuck it out all the way through the doc, though, noting down the titles of some movies we want to catch up with. And when he drops the politics, Diamond can be droll and shrewd about topics like Iron Eyes Cody, a Sicilian-American who made a life for himself playing Indians on screen and who apparently came to believe in his personal myth. (A famous series of “Keep America Beautiful” ads from the early ’70s featured Cody as a weeping Indian chief.) A visit with Cody’s half-Native son, who reveres his father as a great Indian, is fascinating; Werner Herzog would have made a full-length movie about this guy alone. It was interesting to learn (on some webpage I’m unable to find again) that Neil Diamond’s original plan was to make a 30 minute doc about non-Native actors who’d portrayed Indians on TV. Now that’s a show I might really have enjoyed.


About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
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11 Responses to “Reel Injuns”

  1. >>Man oh man, do some people take media portrayals a lot more seriously than I do.

    I’ve been thinking about blogging about this topic but your puzzlement and exasperation sum up my POV very nicely.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Late August Cinematic Mini-Linkfest | Patriactionary

  3. lloydville says:

    I’ve watched zillions of Westerns, because I’m obsessed by the genre, and what I’m most struck by is how sympathetically, if simplemindedly, Indians are generally portrayed, from the days of Griffith to the days of Ford — apart from the now un-PC (but more importantly very surreal) habit of casting Caucasians as Indians. The more savage acts of white settlers tend to be downplayed, but so do the more savage acts of Indians. Bad Indians tend to be very bad, good Indians tend to be very good — but the same tends to be true of the white characters in Westerns.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      Agreed. The Western as a haven for racist attitudes about Indians is largely a myth, IMO.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Toddy Cat says:

        True, Americans have been fascinated by Indians from the first encounter, and even a lot of the so called “racist exploitation” of Indians reflects that fact. People don’t name sports teams or weapons systems after people they have contempt for. There is no football team called the “Nashville N*ggers”, or a missile called the “Killer K*ke”, for example.


    • Cyrus says:

      Wise words as usual Lloyd.

      I think your description suits other genres – like Colonial adventures – of the Golden Age of Hollywood too: simplistic but just as often sympathetic.


  4. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    That eel doc is hilarious, isn’t it? Not the Onion.

    Another doc of that type: The one about the expert fishing fly maker from the UK. It’s on Netflix. Can’t remember what it’s called.


  5. I was surprised “Reel Injuns” didn’t make more of “Black Robe.” Or make anything of “Black Robe,” really. What a film.


  6. Tex says:

    My favourite screen Indian was Magua from ‘Last of the Mohicans’. Very nice chap.


  7. Callowman says:

    Rez car vignette:

    Driving through SD/Wyoming in the early 80s, I stop near the Black Hills in the evening to fuel up. A very drunk young Native American man comes blasting in in a big ca 1970 beater, the kind where you had to push the spring-loaded license plate away to fill up. He manages to get the gas cap off, then jams the nozzle in just to the side of the hole and starts spraying gas on the pavement.

    “Hey, buddy!” I say. “Whoa there!” He looks at me quizzically.

    “You missed the hole,” I say, pointing. He stops spraying, pulls out and fumblingly reinserts the nozzle … and continues spraying gas on the pavement.

    “Whoa!” I say.

    He backs off, I put the nozzle in the hole and hook up the latch, and the rest of his prepaid five bucks’ worth goes into the tank. When it finishes, he gives the nozzle a couple feckless tugs, then looks up at me again. I pull the nozzle out and hang it up on the pump cradle. Zombie-like, he gets back behind the wheel and peels out. The gas cap falls off the trunk onto the pavement as he accelerates. He jolts across the curb strip and fishtails away.

    I was done by then, but I had a smoke before heading out myself to give him a few minutes to get away from me.

    Liked by 2 people

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